Nar­ra­tive De­vices

Rewiring the mys­tery novel for the dig­i­tal age

The Walrus - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Naben Ruth­num il­lus­tra­tion by Kyle Met­calf

To­ward the end of Joy Field­ing’s She’s Not There , the char­ac­ters reach a point when a DNA test is all that stands be­tween them and the novel’s piv­otal truth. Caro­line, the book’s main char­ac­ter, wants to call her friend Peggy, a health-care worker, for ad­vice — but she’s at a wed­ding re­cep­tion and won’t be avail­able un­til the morn­ing.

Michelle, Caro­line’s twenty-year-old daugh­ter, short­cuts this plan by ask­ing, “Hasn’t any­body here ever heard of the In­ter­net?” She rushes up­stairs to google DNA test­ing clin­ics and re­turns with ad­dresses on a piece of pa­per. But this raises an­other ques­tion: Hasn’t Michelle ever heard of smart­phones? This dash to an un­seen com­puter is an odd trip for her to make at a time when young adults are rarely with­out their iphone or An­droid.

She’s Not There is a near-tech­less thriller. The book starts when Caro­line gets a land­line call from a teen named Lili, who claims to be Caro­line’s daugh­ter, ab­ducted as an in­fant from a Mex­i­can re­sort fif­teen years ear­lier. Lili can’t email pic­tures and can com­mu­ni­cate only by phone or in per­son, be­cause her par­ents “never had com­put­ers in the house,” as they wanted to keep Face­book and porn away from their kids. The ten­sion and agony in­volved in a lo­stand-po­ten­tially-re­cov­ered child pro­vide ma­te­rial for a grip­ping story, one that de­liv­ers high drama and a sat­is­fy­ing res­o­lu­tion. But the book, set pri­mar­ily in present­day San Diego, also in­cludes se­quences that our con­tem­po­rary way of life — the in­stant ac­cess to data, the abil­ity to con­tact other peo­ple im­me­di­ately via text mes­sag­ing — ren­ders anachro­nis­tic.

Field­ing has been writ­ing steel-trap thrillers for decades now, and it’s tempt­ing to see her re­luc­tance to ab­sorb the ev­ery­day use of dig­i­tal de­vices as gen­er­a­tional. But many young writ­ers from Canada, the United States, the United King­dom, and Nordic coun­tries also seem in­ter­ested in keep­ing the more per­va­sive kinds of tech­nol­ogy out of their plots. Some do this by fo­cus­ing on the re­cent or dis­tant past, as Elisabeth de Mari­affi does in her ’90s-era crime thriller The Devil You Know ; oth­ers move the ac­tion out­side the range of cell­phone cov­er­age, as Ruth Ware does in In a Dark, Dark Wood, where the char­ac­ters are in­vited to a re­mote cot­tage for a bach­e­lorette party. Ware holds off on re­veal­ing that the bride-to-be is mar­ry­ing pro­tag­o­nist Nora’s ex-boyfriend — a piece of knowl­edge that would be vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble for Nora

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