Old wine, new bottles

There’s a recent trend in crime and mystery fiction, mainly in those books we label “suspense.” This is my particular niche–stories of everyday people, as opposed to professionals, who are caught up in criminal plots. It’s getting harder and harder for writers to isolate and endanger their protagonists, and I blame this entirely on electronics. With the harsh realities of the Instant Information Age everywhere around us, many crime writers have resorted to setting their stories in the past.

I know, because I’m one of them. Of the last four suspense novels I’ve written (none of them yet published), two are set in earlier eras–1954 and 1970, to be precise. My stories are the same as ever–love, lust, rage, madness and murder among a small group of people, none of them professional detectives–but the times are simpler. Placing a murder mystery in the post-war ’50s or the Woodstock era of my own youth is a quick, efficient way to circumvent cellphones, GPS tracking, DNA evidence testing, Facebook, Twitter, and all the other nasty accoutrements of the real world of today. I don’t mean these things are nasty in and of themselves–they’re wonderful innovations–but they are no friends of writers who depend on withheld information, physical isolation, and the element of surprise to propel their stories.

I’m hardly alone in this. A glance at any bestseller list or bookstore front table will show you a plethora of Victorian mysteries, WWII thrillers, and Cold War espionage novels. It will also show you a massive number of fantasy tales set in alternate worlds and supernatural/paranormal stories involving vampires, witches, and “shape shifters.” Now, there’s always been a market for all of these things, but they’ve suddenly blossomed. Why?

Because they are what everyone is writing. Why?

Because they remove the pesky expedients of modern means of mass communication.

Much has been said lately about the sudden popularity of fantasy, paranormal, and comic books (now given the respectable title, “graphic novels”). Not so much has been said of the boom in historical mysteries. The easy explanation for the rise in both sub-genres is that everyone wants to escape today’s harsh realities–meaning international tensions, terrorism, and the high cost of living. Well, those may be the realities readers are escaping, but writers are another matter. We’re escaping all that stuff cluttering up our desks and making our pockets bulge. Computers and cellphones are our best friends–and our worst enemies.

There was a time when thieves could plan a heist, killers could plot a murder, and innocent victims could be isolated in sinister small towns or creepy old houses without the constant intrusion of high-speed communication. How can your cunning villain go into hiding when his phone, his car, and–for all I know–his belt buckle are pinpointing his exact latitude and longitude for anyone who cares to look for him? How do you get your frightened heroine alone in the house with Hannibal the Cannibal, when all she has to do is reach into her purse and send a text to the nearest authorities? How can Poirot or Miss Marple gather seven likely suspects in the drawing room, when a single drop of sweat left at the crime scene can eliminate the need for it? Today’s detectives don’t have to figure out who murdered Roger Ackroyd: they already know whodunit!

The modern crime writer must learn new ways to present classic stories. I mentioned that 2 of my last 4 books are historical novels. Of the other 2, both set in the present, one takes place on a tiny, remote tropical island well beyond the reach of cell towers and ISPs, and the other involves a protagonist who has been forced (by circumstance) to rid herself of all modern conveniences. Her cellphone is at the cleaners, as it were, and the automobiles she uses have been carefully stripped of tracking devices.

Removing the modern world from the modern mystery is a real challenge. But it is a challenge we all must meet if crime and mystery novels are to survive. So we’re all thinking up elaborate ways to put old wine in new bottles.

How’s that working out for us? We’ll Tweet you with the answer.