The mobile phone (not) the death of the crime novel (Part 2)
Using modern technology in your books
Last week I wrote about the ways in which mobile phones are a technology that should be seen as an opportunity for modern writers, rather than as a constraint to their story telling. This week, I want to explore that in a bit more depth.
Location data It is often said that we now carry a miniature tracking device around with us. That is true to an extent. Unlike radios, phones do not connect directly to one another. Rather they need to connect to a cell tower, which then relays the signal (often in multiple steps) to the receiving handset. Therefore to make a call, send a text or use the internet, they need to be able to contact a cell tower - the same goes when receiving a call or text - if your phone has no signal, when it finally reconnects you will get any unreceived text messages or missed call notifications.
As a phone moves around it constantly connects and reconnects to the nearest cell tower. In areas with multiple towers, the phone will often be connected to several, choosing the one with the strongest signal. The strength of a signal decreases with distance, which means that it is possible to work out roughly how far from a tower a phone is. In a remote area with very few towers, this will be a large circle around the tower. In an area with more than one tower, there will be a circle for each connection. The handset will be within the region where the circles overlap, a process called triangulation. The more towers the phone connects to, the more precisely the phone can be located, sometime to just a few metres. In an urban setting, this should be very precise. In practise, lots of tall building and thick walls will impede this - consider this if you don't want your character's handset to be located too precisely. Handily, phone networks keep a record of this data for at least 12 months, and again it can be obtained by a warrant. If you want to place a suspect at a location, at a specific time, then you can use this to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy.
However, this is only useful if your character is carrying their phone with them, or it is switched on. Might they leave it at home when they go out to commit their nefarious deeds, thus establishing an alibi? This could be disproven if a witness places them somewhere different to where their phone states they were. Perhaps they just turn it off? It's circumstantial, but if they never normally switch their phone off it seems a bit suspicious if the phone went off at the exact time the crime was committed...
GPS is a little different. The handset uses the distance from a series of orbiting satellites to triangulate its position. The satellites have no idea where the phone is and you can't "hack into" a GPS signal to work it out. However, the device may broadcast or record its location, and this could be picked up. Many online services like to know where your handset is, for legitimate or not so legitimate purposes. This can be turned off in your privacy settings (consider doing this - it's under location services on Google Android). Many apps make a log of where your handset has been. If police can unlock the handset, then they can access this log. Intelligent, professional criminals will likely switch this feature off - would your character be savvy enough to do this?
Unlocking phones Of course all of this stored data is useless, if you can't access it - and there in lie the challenges and opportunities for writers. Modern phones have screen locks that most people now use. With so much of our lives now conducted through our mobile devices, it's madness NOT to lock your device - if only so your 'friend' can't send rude text messages to your contacts when you leave your phone unattended. Many devices also encrypt the data held on them, making it theoretically impossible to read the data. As an anti-theft device, many smartphones now have the option to remotely lock and even wipe the data from a phone. For this reason police will often place phones in a 'Faraday bag' which blocks signals to the phone, so the owner can't remotely access it. In a pinch, the shielding on a microwave oven will also do this.
So how does your investigator unlock the device? PIN Codes The easiest to use. Perhaps they use the same PIN for multiple devices? Dirty fingerprints on the screen might give an indication of which digits were used, but the possible combinations will soon become unmanageable. Perhaps keep it simple and have somebody look over their shoulder and memorise the PIN as they type it.
Swipe Access The user swipes their finger across the screen in a pre-determined pattern. Again, grubby fingers may leave a trace on the screen.
Biometrics Fingerprints, facial recognition, voice recognition - all of these are potential ways to lock a device. The most poorly understood one is fingerprint. You cannot unlock a phone using the owner's severed finger. Nor can you use the finger of a corpse. All modern fingerprint readers use the miniscule electrical charges generated by living cells to generate an image. After death, these charges dissipate. Exactly how long after death this occurs is the subject of some debate - it's difficult to get ethical approval to perform the necessary experiments! Suffice to say that if you want to unlock the phone of a dead person in your book, they need to be really fresh!
That's all I am going to say about mobile phones for the time being, but there is much else consider. In a later post, I will return to the topic of Social Media, which these days is often linked to mobile devices.
Next week, I will move away from technology for a week and focus on character voice.
As always, if you want to comment on any of this, please do, either here or on social media.
The mobile phone (not) the death of the crime novel (Part 1)
Using modern technology in your books
In 1910 the notorious Dr Hawley Crippen fled Britain aboard the Montrose to start a new life in Canada, after murdering his second wife, Cora. The fugitive was recognised by the ship's captain, who used his ship-to-shore wireless set to inform the British authorities about his infamous passenger. Chief Inspector Walter Dew booked passage on a faster White Star Liner, SS Laurentic, and arrived ahead of Montrose, whereupon he boarded the ship and arrested Crippen. Crippen was tried, convicted of his wife's murder, and hanged in November of that year.
Crippen was the first suspect to be caught with the aid of wireless telegraphy. At the time, it is said that some felt this advance in technology sounded the death knell for the crime novel - how could a fugitive evade justice if this new-fangled communication technology allowed their whereabouts to be communicated instantly to the authorities?
110 years on and every new advance in crime-fighting technology has provoked similar reactions. In fact just a few years ago, I was chatting to a long-standing crime writer about the use of modern technology "I've stopped setting my books in modern times, I stick to the 80s as I understand the technology," he told me. And that got me thinking.
Modern technology is an opportunity, not a constraint. There, I've said it. I write contemporary British police procedurals. I try to be as realistic as possible, and so cannot ignore the ways in which the latest technology now shapes the way that investigations are performed. But it can be daunting. Over the next few months, I intend to publish some blog posts looking at some of the ways that writers can incorporate the latest advances in technology in their books, and hopefully show how rather than being a straitjacket that makes modern story-telling more difficult, it actually opens up new and exciting ways to tell that tale.
This and the next blog will focus on mobile phones, with later blogs on DNA evidence, social media and other modern technologies. Don't worry, there will still be plenty of posts focusing on the craft of writing also.
London Calling... The scourge/usefulness of mobile phones in crime novels.
In 2020, almost everybody carries a smartphone. Criminals have been using mobile phones to run their operations since the days of the house-brick-sized Motorola. But every advance in mobile technology has both benefits and drawbacks for criminals, and by extension, writers. So let's look at a few of them.
Tracing calls. Many people have mobile phone contracts, keeping the same number for years. For many of us, our mobile number is the only number we can remember and the only one that we ever give out. I've had a mobile for over 20 years, and that number has followed me across the better part of 10 handsets and a half-dozen providers. Should the police stumble across my number in connection with a crime, my mobile phone company can tell them who I am and where I live in seconds. An easy way to track down your master criminal! Who sent the threatening text message to the murder victim? Clickity-Click, Joe Blogs, suspect identified!
But it doesn't have to be that way. It is perfectly legitimate for anyone to buy a Pay-as-You-Go SIM card, with cash, no questions asked. No need to give any details, just pop it in the phone, activate it and away you go. They have prepaid credit that can be topped up online, or if you value your anonymity, with cash at the local newsagent. And many people do. Criminals, especially drug dealers, will often buy several of these SIM cards, alternating between them or discarding the number after just a few uses. This means that as soon as the police have a phone number that they can link to the criminal, it's already out-of-date. You can use this in your writing to make things more challenging for your investigators.
Burner phones. Criminals often go one step further than multiple SIM cards, they have multiple handsets that they throw away when they've served their purpose. The device will include records of calls and texts made and received and perhaps even an address book, so criminals don't want that electronic list of their historic offences in their pocket when they are collared. The common term for these is a 'burner phone'. Cheap, basic handsets are easy to buy, either legitimately or from a mugger. But there is a protection against this. All devices have a unique identifying code called an IMEI number - look at your phone instructions for this - you can register the number with your network provider, so if your phone is stolen, they can block it. This obviously reduces the attraction of phones being stolen purely for their resale value, which is why many head off overseas, and those stolen to be used as burners have to be used quickly before they stop working. The IMEI number will be logged every time the phone connects to the network - can you use this in your book? If your victim's expensive phone was stolen, perhaps it was sold on? Trace the current owner, and perhaps it will lead your investigators back to the person that originally stole it?
Call logs. Who did your victim call? Who else does your suspect keep in contact with? Assuming that you can put a name to a number (see above), this web of connections between mobile phone numbers can be an invaluable tool. On production of a warrant, the police can demand to see this web from the network providers, going back at least 12 months. But it can't do everything. First of all, this log merely lists the numbers called or texted, date, time and duration. IT DOES NOT have the content of those calls and texts. You can show association, but can't prove that two people chatted about the crime. The network doesn't save the content of the texts, so you would need access to one of the devices to read them. Similarly, calls are not recorded. To get that, you would need to have arranged for this to happen in advance - a wiretap if you like. That requires a warrant, granted by someone more senior than the local magistrate. Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that all calls are recorded by GCHQ or the NSA etc. True or not, unless it's national security related, PC Plod isn't going to have access to that.
In next weeks blog, I am going to take this a little further and look at the other ways you can use mobile phones to help tell your story, such as location data and the ways that phones store this data.
Do you have anything interesting to add? Feel free to comment here or on social media. Until next time, Paul.
Oh dear. We've all been there. Trying to figure out if the 'Steve' your boss has asked you to email is Steve in accounts, or Steve in sales. I once worked somewhere that had FOUR J. Smiths. All the email system listed them as was email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com etc. It didn't help that two of the women also had the same first name. The entire staff mailing list would get periodic reminders from these poor workers asking us to double-check who the intended recipient was when sending an email.
As writers of fiction we can usually avoid this situation by choosing different names for our characters - after all, I'm the one in charge here! Tip - keep a list of character names to avoid using the same name twice, and perhaps try and use different first letters as well as avoiding names that rhyme! Andy, Sandy and Mandy may all have different first letters, but it can make it more difficult for readers to follow them.
But sometimes, repetition is unavoidable. Take a family, who all share the same surname. There's a father and two sons, Mr Elton, Mr Elton and Mr Elton. Mrs Elton is Mr Elton's wife. Mrs Elton is Mr Elton's wife (and also the mother of Mr Elton and Mr Elton), and Mrs Elton is the ex-wife of Mr Elton, who is due to marry the second Mrs Elton next summer.
Unfortunately, that's how names work and you will need to deal with it.
Dealing with multiple instances of a surname The most obvious solution is to use their first names. That works fine in dialogue - outside of formal speech, people are far more likely to deal with a person by their first name these days. In a police investigation, officers will usually use a victim and suspect's first names when they are discussing the case, so it would feel natural for them to do so in your story. But what about in the prose? In an interview for example, the convention in crime fiction is usually to refer to the subject by surname. "I don't know what you mean," said Smith. "Yes you do," replied Harrison.
I was confronted by this problem (again!) when writing next summer's book. I have a father and three sons, plus a daughter and two wives. All have the surname Patel. All of these characters are interviewed, or discussed by the investigation team at some point. Fortunately, none of them are ever seen interacting with each other. But even so, one of my beta readers did admit that she lost track at one point of who was in that particular interview. I tried rewriting the scene by referring to them by their (clear and distinct) first names. It didn't work. Everywhere else in the book (and all my other books!) I stick with the surname-only convention for third-person narrated prose. So I had to use tricks to remind the reader who was in the room during that scene. If you are struggling, try some of the following: 1) Introduce the scene with their full name eg Manoj Patel was a man in his forties ... or "Please state your full name for the tape." "Manoj Patel."
2) Gender - occasionally use He said or She said. This immediately differentiates between a husband and wife or brother and sister, for example.
3) Use the character's first name in dialogue. This can be a little more tricky in a formal situation, but it will work well if used correctly eg "Tell us what happened, Manoj," said Sutton. Patel said nothing, and stared into space.
In this instance I have reminded the reader who is being interviewed, and also paired his first and last names again as a recap.
But be careful not to over use names, or the writing becomes clunky and amateurish. Just sprinkle them in periodically, for the benefit of those who may be distracted or interrupted whilst they read.
Dealing with the same first names Plenty of cultures follow the tradition of naming the sons after their father - sometimes for several generations. Take a fictional American family with three generations of Charles Jones. They will sometimes deal with the surnames in the following way (eldest to youngest). Charles Jones Senior, Charles Jones Junior, and Charles Jones III. But how do you ask the correct person to pass the spuds at Thanksgiving? Perhaps consider giving each of them a nickname. Dad is Charles, Son is Charlie, Grandson is Chuck. Again, you can insert subtle reminders of who is who into the text eg Charles looked at Charlie, barely hiding his contempt for his son. or Charles started the engine. "Where are we going, granddad? asked Chuck.
Do you have any tales to tell or advice to add? As always, feel free to comment here, or on social media.
Choosing character names from a different background to you
Last week, I discused how to choose appropriate character names. This week, I want to address choosing names outside of your own ethnic background.
Khaaaan!!!! One of the most popular Star Trek villains of all time is the genetic superman, Khan Noonien Singh. First appearing in the 1967 episode Space Seed, the character was also the eponymous bad guy in the second Star Trek movie, 1982's The Wrath of Khan. Khan remains an incredibly popular villain, even outside Trek fandom. But there are a couple of things about him that haven't stood the test of time so well. First, he was portrayed in both these instances by Ricardo Montalban - a respected Mexican actor chosen, in part, because they needed someone with dark-skin to portray a character of Middle-Eastern heritage. That's a casting decision that would likely be avoided today. The second issue is his name: Khan Noonien Singh. Khan is most closely associated with Muslims. Singh is a name traditionally given to Sikh males. Bi-racial or bi-heritage children do of course exist in significant numbers these days, but without an explanation being given, authors - especially those who are not from that background - run the risk of having their work dismissed as poorly researched. *It should be noted that this seemingly incongruous pairing is addressed in Greg Cox's 2001 novelStar Trek: The Eugenics Wars (Volume 1): The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, but it is considered non-canonical.
How do you name a character that is from a background different to yourself? I am a white male, of British ancestry, as are all of my closest relatives. But confining myself to only including characters from that ethnic background would lead to books that are not reflective of the modern society in which we live. I was forced to address this issue head-on in two of my novels: DCI Warren Jones 4: The Common Enemy, and next summer's release, which I recently submitted to my publisher. In both books, there are significant characters whose family heritage is the Indian subcontinent. Therefore, my suggestions apply directly to the subcontinent, but will likely apply to other situations that you may encounter.
How did I avoid the "Khan" problem? The Indian subcontinent is vast, and during its long history has been divided and sub-divided many times. The current configuration of countries and territories is largely a 20th Century construction. Furthermore, the continent is home to many different religions and caste traditions and languages. All of which have names - given and family - associated with them. Some names are traditionally female, some male and some both. There are also masculinised/feminised versions, rather like Paul, Paula or Pauline.
The website Behind the name has a random name generator. https://www.behindthename.com/random/ But it only has the option to choose "Indian". So you will need to do some further research. Most entries have a short sentence listing the name's provenance and variants on it - but don't take their word for it. I can't stress enough that this site should only be the first step in choosing a name.
Unless it's relevant to the story, keep it simple. Assume that both parents of your character (or their families) originally came from similar regions, religions and backgrounds and choose names accordingly. Give the character first and last names that are from the same traditions.
Then research the names further. Wikipedia often has short background articles for popular names.
Next, when you've chosen two names that you think will work, do some research on that pairing. First, does that person already exist? The fact that there are individuals in the world with the same name doesn't mean you can't use it, but if that name is associated with an (in)famous person already, it may be a distraction for your readers. There are a lot of Sam Smiths in the world, but if your character also happens to be a musician, perhaps reconsider.
Then do a final check that the pairing actually works in the real world. For this, I type the name into Facebook search. If I get a couple of dozen hits for people with that name (and their profile pictures suggest they are the correct gender and ethnicity), then I will assume that the name is not outlandish enough to raise eyebrows from readers from that background.
Fingers crossed, no complaints so far!
Next week I will conclude this particular topic by looking at how to deal with the problem of multiple characters with the same name.
Feel free to comment, either here or on social media. Paul