A few weeks back I spoke at Bristol CrimeFest, on a panel about crime fiction in the digital age. The smartphone, we agreed, is no friend to the crime writer. It makes people too easy to find. The new technologies of detection and surveillance make mystery stories ever harder to write. Who would want to read a novel where Poirot uses Google to crack the case, instead of his grey cells? When everything can be known by looking at the data, what need for the instinctive spark of genius that marks out the great detective?
Some writers flee to the near or distant past, to find a setting where DNA – let alone DNA tests – hasn’t yet been discovered. I’m a big fan of period pieces – I’m writing one myself – but I can’t help feeling that the genre has an urgent role to play back here in the present. Today’s internet is a wild frontier where new ways of doing harm are being invented every day. If crime fiction is to keep pace with the world, it needs to embrace technology, not shy from it.
It was the fish that done it
In his 1950 essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, Raymond Chandler praised the new, realistic form of crime fiction that was then coming into vogue. Writers like Dashiell Hammett, he said, were giving murder ‘back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.’ Chandler mocks the classic mystery story as a tweedy form where the mechanics of clue, red herring and double bluff had long ago overridden psychological realism; where the panelled drawing room trumped the kind of gritty social context where murder usually happens. He had a point; though if I’m honest I would gladly read a story where the murder weapon is a tropical fish.
Chandler wanted mystery stories to embrace reality, in all its brutal ambiguity. Today, we take for granted the idea that our detectives will have to journey into darkness to uncover the truth, usually at massive personal cost. But Chandler was one of the first to articulate this notion, and he did so better than anyone else has ever done, in a bravura section that begins with the now-famous line, ‘Down those mean streets a man must go.’
Chandler’s mean streets stretched from the dark alleys of downtown LA to the tony salons of Mulholland Drive. By sending his iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, along them, he laid bare the stark realities of money, violence and power that were broiling beneath the glossy veneer of mid-century Hollywood. He spoke truth about America’s dark side, just as Ellroy and so many others have gone on to do, along the same streets, over the decades that followed.
But today there’s a new frontier for crime – one that that a contemporary Marlowe would have no choice but to explore.
New crimes for old
More and more of our time is spent online. Our lives, our relationships – our sense of self – are in large part constructed there. And more and more of the bad stuff in our world begins there, too. The social media we interact with day-to-day can be threatening enough, especially to women and minorities who dare express their views; yet this visible internet is only the surface of an ocean whose depths are broiling with sharks. Most of the net is dark.
The internet is the petri dish in which a global criminal fraternity is cooking up new illicit concoctions. Many online crimes are all too familiar. Want to buy some blow? Hire a thug? Order up an assassination on an Amazon-style website? No problem. Get yourself a copy of the TOR browser and these things are a click away. But the internet is also breeding new varieties of crime. Crimes that threaten our identities as much as our skins. Many of the bad things done online aren’t even crimes yet because the law simply hasn’t caught up with them. Legislation against revenge porn only passed into UK law a few weeks ago. What crime writer could resist the opportunity to explore such an uncharted territory?
It’s these new kinds of threat that I’ve set out to explore in my internet thriller, Sockpuppet. The crimes committed in my book are slippery. It’s often people’s reputations, their identities, that are under threat, rather than their skins. In a world where everyone can be anyone they want, the true culprits are hard to unearth. Sockpuppet’s protagonist, the young hacker Dani Farr, is nobody’s Miss Marple. She shoots from the hip, she’s rude, abrasive, often arrogant to those who can’t keep up with her technical brilliance. But to me she’s the epitome of a new type of hero. She’s willing to go all out, give all of herself to fight her corner. She’s smart and remorseless and, most importantly, she has the techie chops to navigate her way through a series of crimes that are wholly digital.
Like many of the great detectives of the past, I wouldn’t find Dani easy to be around if I met her in real life; but I’m glad she’s out there. Because onto that dark net a woman must go.
This post first appeared on crimefiles.com.