Rewiring the mystery novel for the digital age
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