Digital Detectives Vie with Tech-Savvy Criminals in Crime Fiction War of Good vs. Evil

September 22, 2020

From computer hacking to weaponized drones, technology is on the rise in detective novels, Baylor University researcher says

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-644-4155
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WACO, Texas (Sept. 22, 2020) – “Whodunnit” may be the big question in crime fiction, but “how they done it” determines whether they will get away with it.

These days in detective novels, the war of good against evil increasingly involves technological savvy, says crime fiction researcher Nicole Kenley, Ph.D., lecturer in English at Baylor University.

Fingerprinting and forensics are still staples in detective novels, says Kenley, who fell in love with Agatha Christie mysteries as a pre-teen. But as criminals delve into computer hacking and RFID tracking, as they do wrong with smartphones and weapon drones, criminal investigators rapidly are adding digital detecting to their sleuthing skills set.

Fresh from research published in Mean Streets: A Journal of American Crime and Detective Fiction, Kenley discusses technology in crime fiction from its roots to the present.

Q: What got you interested in researching crime fiction?

KENLEY: I never considered detective fiction as a field of research until I read Raymond Chandler in a “Literature of California” class as an undergraduate. I was instantly hooked, and I’ve been working on detective fiction ever since.

The first novel that really put digital detection on my radar was Stieg Larsson’s global phenomenon “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” We tend to think of detectives as gathering physical evidence, but Larsson’s detective Lisbeth Salander uses her computer hacking skills to gather digital evidence instead. These skills enable her to investigate crime on a truly global scale, and I’m fascinated by how digital technology enables the spread of, and policing of, criminal networks across the globe.

Q: How do you research crime fiction?

KENLEY: I’ve interviewed real-life private investigators to see how their lived experiences line up with the way it’s represented in fiction. Short answer: it doesn’t. But my primary research involves drawing on the strong tradition of existing crime fiction scholarship. From there, I think about how the patterns and frameworks those scholars describe change due to the new challenges posed by globalization and technology.

Q: When did crime technology begin cropping up in detective novels?

KENLEY: Detection and technology have been inextricably linked since the genre’s beginnings in the mid-19th Century. That included the telegraph and the photograph, as well as other more sensational technologies like the lie detector, also introduced in the 19th century. The cutting-edge technology in the crime fiction of the hardboiled era of the 1920s and 1930s was definitely fingerprinting, which of course endures today.

Q: Your recent research in Mean Streets journal was about the late author Sue Grafton and her alphabet mystery series. As technology got more sophisticated, her female private investigator Kinsey Millhone stuck with a portable Smith-Corona typewriter and taking notes on index cards. Some people criticized Grafton for not having Kinsey keep pace in the real-time digital world. Why didn’t she do that?

KENLEY: One answer might certainly be nostalgia; Grafton’s alphabet series invites readers back into a world in which information wasn’t instantly available through search engines. I’d argue that Grafton had more in mind than just a comforting trip down memory lane, though. Her later novels use the technology of the late 1980s to comment on the technology of the early 2000s. Kinsey Millhone can frequently be found scoffing at the idea of home computers, for example. Further, though, Grafton’s depictions of the 1980s aren’t actually that cozy. Many of her victims experience similar struggles to more contemporary readers — being recorded without their knowledge and blackmailed, say, as depicted in Grafton’s last novel, “Y is for Yesterday.” My perspective is that Grafton wants to remind readers that the past wasn’t necessarily a simpler time after all.

Q: What are some trends you’ve observed in detective fiction over the years?

KENLEY: I would say that one trend is trends. New subgenres become popular in detective fiction all the time. The 1980s featured hardboiled female private investigators, the 1990s highlighted forensic detective fiction, and the 2000s introduced the world to Nordic noir. The genre reflects culture and, as such, is constantly changing. I can’t wait to see what the next big trend will be.

Q: You’ve written in your research about author Patricia Cornwell, who writes about a medical examiner, and author Kathy Reichs, who writes about a forensic anthropologist. Will forensic detective fiction go out of style?

KENLEY: I would argue that forensic detective fiction has moved to incorporate digital technology more and more as a way to stay relevant. One of my current projects uses text data mining to track the increase of digital technology across the works of Cornwell and Reichs. Both authors show dramatic increases in digital technology in their works. Of course, the texts work to show how forensics and digital technologies are compatible rather than at odds.

Q: Why does technology in crime fiction reel readers in?

KENLEY: Detective fiction can push the boundaries of what’s possible, deploying new technologies in previously unconsidered ways. Often, readers get a thrill out of seeing a technology deployed as part of a criminal enterprise and then experience reassurance once detectives contain that threatening new technology.

A: What are some of the latest technological tools taking hold in crime fiction?

KENLEY: Crime fiction has an amazing ability to present the same technology as a tool for criminal activity as well as a tool for thwarting that criminal activity. Other technologies that criminals and detectives are leveraging in the fiction include RFID tracking, smart appliances and even weaponized miniature drones. It’s fascinating to see how creative authors are in using these new technologies, for good and for evil.

Q: Why might some crime fiction writers dodge digital technology in their books?

KENLEY: While some readers find the relationship between digital technology and crime fascinating, others enjoy an escape from the constant barrage of digital technology that exists in our everyday world. Writers who minimize digital technology, or avoid it altogether, offer a respite.

Q: In contemporary detective novels, are crime fighters generally coming out on top when it comes to technology and getting the criminals?

KENLEY: Of course it depends on the novel, but I would say that in contemporary detective fiction broadly, authors are depicting their detectives as more aware than ever that if they are able to apprehend the individual criminals, they will not be able to stop the broader criminal syndicates, multinational corporations, or trafficking rings that those criminals represent. In other words, it’s less about getting the criminals and more about how to proceed knowing that global criminality can’t be contained.

Q: Are crime fiction writers themselves becoming more tech-savvy? Or does this all just mean that they’ll be thanking digital wizards in acknowledgements at the end of their books?

KENLEY: I think the answer is both. Many authors have worked to become more tech-savvy in response to the demands of the readership, but at the same time, they still will consult with the tech experts to make sure they get every detail right. When the technical details are off, authors tend to hear about it from the fans.

Q: When you read crime fiction these days, are you able to turn off your researcher side?

KENLEY: After studying detective fiction for nearly 15 years, I have a very hard time switching out of academic mode. If a novelist is engaging enough, though, it can sometimes transform me from a researcher back into a pure fan. This is how I feel when I read Tana French, for example.

Q: What do you figure will remain constant in crime fiction?

KENLEY: For crime fiction, I think the only constant is change. As long as crime in the real world continues to grow and change, crime fiction will adapt right alongside it.


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