Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mystery Solving, Past and Present


I was intrigued by David Cole's entry last Saturday about how the internet and technology figures large in modern mysteries, and it behooves a mystery novelist to educate herself on the subject.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, because I am in the process of writing my first mystery novel with a modern setting. My six previous published mysteries are all set in the American Southwest at the beginning of the 20th Century, and as I work on this contemporary story, I realize that I'm dealing with an entirely different species of literature. I've heard authors say that they think writing historical mysteries is more difficult than contemporary, but I beg to differ?

Not for me. Of course, I have already garnered quite an education about pre-World War I Oklahoma in the course of writing six books (Seven and a half, really. They have not all seen the light of day.) When it comes to Twenty-first Century crime solving techniques, I am starting from scratch.

1. I learned almost immediately that even if I'm not writing a police procedural, police procedure is going to be involved. No one in the present-day United States is going to get himself murdered without the police showing up and doing what police do unless the author undertakes all sorts of gyrations to place the victim, suspects, and sleuth outside of normal society.

2. The world used to be a much bigger place than it is now. The resources available to the local lawman in 1913 Oklahoma were much less sophisticated than they were for a Detective Inspector in 1913 London. In 2013, the Scottsdale Police Department has the same access to technology as Scotland Yard.

3. It's infinitely more difficult for an author to isolate someone in a contemporary novel. She has to figure out some way to make that cell phone unusable and/or make the wifi connection go down.

4. All novelists worth their salt try to be authentic and not make mistakes. But when writing a contemporary novel, it's not as easy to elide over verifiable facts. If you give your Des Moines cop the wrong kind of firearm, fifty readers will call you on it. If you give your Eleventh Century Welsh bowman the wrong kind of fletching on his arrows, the one guy in the world who could correct you probably won't be reading your mystery anyway.

5. As the writer, I'm not as interested in the crime solving procedure as I am in the effect of the murder on the characters. But if I'm going to create a realistic world that my readers can enter without being constantly taken out of the story by inaccuracies, I'd better do my best to portray what really happens in 2013 when someone is murdered.

And on that note I must leave you, because tonight is my third class at the Scottsdale Citizen's Police Academy. We're learning about computer crime.

8 comments:

j welling said...

Tough, isn't it? I have almost no interest in the "police procedural" business but on cannot have a contemporary body without the process being invoked.

It's my least favorite part. Chandler had his guy wipe a couple door knobs and slip out when he had an unexpected corpse. I can't go for that these days. I'm not Chandler.

I'm trying to gloss over the formal involvement of the authorities when I have a body, but that isn't working for me either.

I'm waiting on my _Police Procedure and Investigations_ to ship so I can read it before asking the local knacker man intelligent questions.

I'll look into the local "citizens academy." I'm sure we must have one.

Thanks!

J



Sandy Cody said...

Nice post. I'm glad I found this site. I'm another with not much interest in police proecure, but need to know at least a bit so add credibility to my cozy mysteries.

Rick Blechta said...

Hey, Sandy! Why not become a "friend" of Type M? You can find the sign-up near the top of the right-hand column. We'd be thrilled to welcome you.

Judith Starkston said...

You are reminding me why I'm glad I write historicals! Contemporary crime sleuthing is way beyond me, I fear. Best wishes with the new endeavor.

Donis Casey said...

Thanks for wishing me luck, Judith and all. And J, I was very glad to find that Citizen's Police Academies abound. Sadly the one in the town I live in was cut for budgetary reasons, but Scottsdale is close enough. Besides, I hope to set the new book in Scottsdale.

Sally Carpenter said...

My mysteries are set in the 1990s, so my amateur sleuth isn't pulling out his cellphone every time he's in trouble or needs a fact. He does things the hard way! I'm careful with police proceduals but DNA testing and the like wasn't as sophisticated then so I have some leeway. You're right, though, with historicals your readers might not pick up on minute errors. Good luck with your new story!

Suzanne said...

If you give your Des Moines cop the wrong kind of firearm, fifty readers will call you on it. If you give your Eleventh Century Welsh bowman the wrong kind of fletching on his arrows, the one guy in the world who could correct you probably won't be reading your mystery anyway.

Trust me, you'll still get called over making that mistake with the fletching. Plus your author credibility will go straight down the garderobe shaft on all the discussion groups and book review blogs that specialize in historicals. :-)

Donis Casey said...

OK, Suzanne, I know you're right. But it sounded so good when I said it.