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.