Stav Sherez: crime fiction and the challenge of technology
The 1990s provided a new challenge for crime writers. The widespread use of mobile phones stripped us of the ability to put characters in danger, without hope of contacting anyone, stranded and alone with only their inner resources to get them out of trouble. Writers, increasingly, would place characters in areas without mobile coverage or have them drop, lose, or destroy their mobiles in an attempt to isolate them and put them out of help’s way.
A lot has changed since then. Mobile phones are as much a part of crime fiction as knives and guns. We learned to adapt and to weave them into our stories. But then came the next big technological advance, and the next, and the next. The pace of technology far outstripped anything previously seen in history. Changes in the Industrial Revolution took decades to solidify so that Victorian writers had time to re-adapt their worldview and narrative techniques to factories and trains and teeming cities. Most modern literary novels are not really that modern and, excepting the odd mobile phone, could be set in any decade of the second half of the twentieth century – but crime fiction has embraced technology and absorbed its narrative possibilities like no other genre.
When I began to write The Intrusions it was a simple, serial killer story set in a backpackers’ hostel in Queensway. But the more I wrote, the more I realised I could not ignore technology and all its manifestations unless I was going to write what amounted to an historical novel. And I soon realised that far from being a problem, technology is a gift to crime writers.
Crime is always a trendsetter. And criminals were early adopters of many technological advances. In the late 1990s we began to see the email scam mushrooming through the nation’s inboxes. Phishing, Trojans, viruses and password hacks were becoming more prevalent. As I was writing The Intrusions, a notorious adultery website was hacked and the details of assignations posted on the net. Women were being attacked, shamed and blackmailed across cyberspace. We’ve lived through the era of Wikileaks and Snowden. Corporate hacking has taken on such a massive scale that it affects the GDP of nations. The recent US election has trailed a new and sinister form of electronic manipulation through fake news stories, smears and hacks. Nixon had to send a group of burglars into the Democratic Party’s HQ at the Watergate building to steal information. These days, all you need to do is sit in front of your computer.
As a human being, this is pretty depressing stuff – but as a crime writer I’m excited by all these new possibilities and the novel kind of plots they enable. But it’s not just crime that’s transformed itself.
Policing has changed, perhaps more fundamentally than at any other time since its inception. Murder teams are no longer staffed with weary detectives tracking door to door but are more likely to consist of computer geeks data mining for information about the victim and perpetrator. CCTV cameras roam our streets like the eye of God in ancient fable. 95% of all Scotland Yard cases use these images as evidence in court. Technology is far less ambiguous than other means of evidence. If you’re caught on camera doing something you shouldn’t be doing, it’s very hard to deny it. If your emails and messages are used against you in court, there’s not much you can say. Police sit in chat rooms pretending to be teenagers to snare paedophiles. Destroyed hard drives are magically alchemised to reveal their secrets. Your own laptop betrays you.
And this is only the beginning. Technology is developing at such an exponential rate that it’s hard to keep up. But you can be certain that both police and criminals are learning how to use these new tools to their own advantage and we, as crime writers, can only follow.