Sunday, February 21, 2010

Methods and Motives

In thinking about the Golden Age of Mysteries, I often pause to consider how much easier it was back then.

• Analog watches and clocks, for instance. They used to smash with predictable regularity so that the time of death might be conveniently noted and alibis collected for that precise time. Try doing that with a digital watch.

• Fingerprints could not be run through a data base, but had to be laboriously compared by eye.

• Ditto semen or other bodily fluids, although DNA data can still be compromised or there can be such a backlog at the lab that one may logically unmask the killer by more conventional methods before the lab confirms his identity.

• The criminal act could not caught be caught by security cameras or by holding up a cell phone.

• Cell phones? What a nuisance they are to today’s mystery writers! Before they became so ubiquitous, a writer could create suspense by having the heroine’s car break down on a dark and deserted stretch of road. Or she would be alone in an empty house and suddenly hear someone outside. These days, she simply whips out her cell phone and calls for help or else narrates to the 911 dispatcher precisely what’s happening and who’s there. If you truly need to isolate someone, you have to logically incapacitate the phone. Smash it, forget to charge it, use it where there’s no reception.

And don’t get me started on motives!

In my Sigrid Harald series, her housemate is a would-be mystery writer and in Corpus Christmas, I let him vent about the lack of credible motives needed for a whodunnit:

“No good motives for murder?” Sigrid snorted. “Roman, I’m a homicide detective. Believe me, people kill for a thousand different reasons.”

“And most of your cases, dear child, are open-and-shut, no?” [He ticks off domestic violence, drug fights, sudden rage, jealousy.] “Illegitimacy used to be such a wonderful reason for murder! Along with miscegenation and incest. Nowadays, if it’s not drugs or mere lust, it’s for something as pointless and bizarre as a parking place or a pair of designer sunglasses.

“People used to kill for noble reasons—for revenge or honor or to usurp a throne. Today, everyone lets it ‘all hang out.’” His lip curled around the phrase disdainfully. “You can’t build a believable mystery around a simple scandal for its own sake anymore. Can you imagine trying to write A Scandal in Bohemia today? Instead of hiring Sherlock Holmes to retrieve that picture of himself with Irene Adler, the king would probably be trying to peddle the negatives to The National Enquirer.”

Sigrid laughed. “And would probably be turned down because both parties in the picture were fully clothed.”

For the record, let’s not forget that seeing is no longer believing when it comes to pictures anyhow. Not when every ten-year-old knows how to Photoshop an image!

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