Friday, January 29, 2010

Talk Talk

By Russel D McLean

The Nerd of Noir is the man of a thousand swears, but despite how that may make him appear to some people (hello, mother!), he’s a savvy guy. Not just because he gave a nice review to one of me books lately* but because he genuinely seems to have a brain underneath that beautifully coiffed hair of his.

That review pointed out one thing in particular about THE GOOD SON that no one else in the world seems to have picked up on:

McNee initially does what no fucking private eye ever seems to do in novels – he used a fucking phone. Instead of traipsing off to London a million fucking miles away (like any other private eye character since Marlowe would do), McNee makes some calls, figures some shit out from the comfort of his office. Instead of a thousand scenes of McNee going from one shady bar or one shit-hole flat to another at who knows how much of an expense, McNee gets practical about it and just calls up contacts. It may not initially seem like a big thing, but think about it. It’s kind of a revelation.

A revelation indeed. But it didn’t seem to me to be one at the time. While I had grown up on novels that relied on those scenes, I am also a product of a world that has started to rely more and for immediate information and I knew that any decent investigator wouldn’t waste his time going to the scene when he could easily get what he needed from his armchair. Or at least lay the groundwork for a speedier investigation.

Is this hampering the idea of the traditional plot? Is this killing crime fiction that things just aren’t so difficult on our protagonists any more?

No, I don’t think so. As anyone who’s read the book will tell you, McNee doesn’t just sit on his arse the whole time (and besides, what if he did? Never did Nero Wolfe any harm…), but his approach opens up a whole new set of complications and has repercussions that would have been very different if he’d done that whole “traipsing down to London” nonsense. I also think it sets him up as a man of his time; a man who can use the modern world. And this is important because I think many protagonists in crime fiction can feel removed from the world they clearly live in due to such simple things as not using a phone properly or refusing to look at the internet (again, McNee’s browsing of a website provides much information on one important character in the book).

I think that if crime fiction is to move forward, it has to embrace the modern world in a natural way and adjust its expectations and clichés accordingly. Yes, there is the worry about characters constantly being in touch or not being isolated when the killer’s coming, but there are ways and means around such things that can be dramatically more terrifying than the old because characters would be reliant on such communication and technology. There is also the question – and its one at the centre of Steve Mosby’s chilling Cry For Help – over who is at the other end of a phone?

Can you really trust a text?

Yes, I think the modern world will kill some clichés, some standard tropes, some long-held ideas of genre fiction. I think it will make wrters consider new ways – consciously or not – to treat old situations.

And, truly, I believe that’s a good thing.

*In the grand and brand new issue of Crime Factory, available if you clicky-click the beautiful link


Paul D Brazill said...


John McFetridge said...

Yes, great post.

It's another reason I like the private eye genre. We expect the cops to have a lot of back-up these days, everything from huge databases to CSI labs and that's okay because cops are looking for evidence that will stand up in court and get a conviction.

Private eyes are looking for the truth.

We're all talking about Spenser these days and when I started reading his books in the late 70's they were very 70's.

Jay Stringer said...

Totally agree. It too often seems that, if technology is employed, it's a strange plot device rather than a fact of everyday use.

Why do PI novels seem so scared of the internet? Even when it's used in a story, the PI himself has to be aloof and not want to use it, someone else has to do it for him.

Which Scudder book was it that had teenage hackers up to all sorts of shennanigans tracking down people identities through phone lines? Although, to be fair, Scudder was a PI who would pick up the phone.

I found early one with one of my stories that i was going to great lengths to NOT use a mobile phone. it was broke, or lost, or he hated them....then i slapped myself in the head and gave him a phone to use.

On the flip side, i think a knowing writer can use these things to show a characters social or mental status, if someone starts a story without a phone he is cut off and alone, adrift, but if he gets a phone near the end it a sign of him 'recovering' and building ties with the world around him.