When I mentioned to my brother-in-law, an ardent sf and fantasy fan, that I was looking for a new kind of mystery, he recommended two books from the 1950’s, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. These mysteries, set in the distant future, feature human police detective Elijah Bailey and his robot humanoid partner R. Daneel Olivaw.
I like The Naked Sun better than The Caves of Steel but I almost put it down because of how technology ruins suspense. Bailey is asked to investigate, with the help of Daneel, a murder on a distant planet settled by humans. Because Daneel is a robot, and this is an Isaac Asimov novel, Daneel is programmed with The Three Laws of Robotics. This means Bailey’s safety is Daneel’s first priority. It also means that in the first part of the book, when anything exciting, or even mildly interesting, is about to happen, Daneel’s programming kicks in and prevents Bailey from taking any action that’s even slightly risky.
The fun thing is that Asimov has Bailey realize his partner’s protection is hampering his investigation. He trick Daneel into inactivity, and then the plot gets more exciting when Bailey is almost killed.
Smartphones are reality’s equivalents of Asimov’s robots:
- Main character gets lost in a dangerous section of city. GPS to the rescue!
- Main character meets mysterious stranger. Does online search for stranger. Mysterious no more!
- Main character notices someone following her. Calls cops while walking!
In the book reviews I read, I find a lot of novels are set in the recent past — 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Maybe that’s because authors know how technology ruins suspense. At a presentation, author Karen Harper, who writes contemporary suspense, mentioned how she had to keep inventing ways to get rid of smartphones to place her characters in danger.
That’s one reason why I like country noir. Many rural places in our country still have no reception. While driving through West Virginia, on a major highway, my oldest lost connection with my niece because the mountains loomed so high above us. A few days ago, I met my cousin and her family at a state park. As the kids went creeking, I glanced at my phone. No bars. A perfect place for a bad guy to lure a good guy.
In my short story, “Debt to Pay” in From the Lake to the River, the teenage main character and his brother live in a small house in Wayne National Forest with no cell reception. This inconvenience is a key ingredient in my plot. I also had to think of a realistic reason for a character to have lost a phone. I don’t want to tell the reason because I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but when I had other people read my rough drafts, no one said it was unbelievable.
What do you think? Have you read a mystery or thriller set in the present that convincingly works around smartphones?