Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Murder, She Blogged

A confession: lately, through the magic of obscure cable channels and a DVR, I’ve been unwinding after a long day by watching the occasional episode of Columbo or Murder, She Wrote. Never mind the satisfaction of seeing justice done, is there anything quite so soothing for a writer than watching J.B. Fletcher put the finishing touches on a manuscript to the tune of that jaunty piano music? That’s how all my days are, after all. Go for a jog, pound out a novel, murder solve my step-step-nephew-once-removed’s murder in the afternoon… 

Since my viewing habits plant me firmly in the 80+ demographic, I figured that gives me the right to spout some of the vast wisdom I’ve accumulated while indulging in my guilty pleasure.

It boils down to this: technology and mystery have a complicated relationship.

Also: Angela Lansbury really should have had her agent negotiate a no-jogging clause.

But back to technology. A good deal of these old-school mysteries wouldn’t last two minutes, let alone an hour if any of the characters had a cell or access to the internet. Take 1971 Columbo classic “Murder by the Book.” (Don’t tell me you’ve let 30 years go by without discovering this gem?) The entire story hinges on the culprit misleading someone about where he placed a call. I’m pretty sure today’s police would be quick to get to the bottom of that one…

Does that mean it was easier to write clever mysteries pre-1990 or so? I suppose someone could make an argument for it. Maybe it explains the preponderance of historical mysteries, too. I know that I certainly have ongoing challenges finding credible ways to get technology out of my middle school sleuths’ hands when it would make things too easy. Parents and teachers seize laptops and cell phones. Thick basement walls block service. Batteries die. Passwords stymie them. Google searches turn up too much information to be useful.

At the same time, technology offers all kinds of clever ways to ferret out information: DNA evidence, online databases, caller ID, cell phone call logs, chatroom posts, voice recorders, GPS tracking, some of the cool gadgetry from SPIES AND PREJUDICE that Talia Vance talked up the other week. And that’s not even mentioning all the clues and opportunities for culprit slip-ups technology can provide. Even simple technology like lock-picking and reprogramming garage door openers sure helped me make things more fun in THE WIG IN THE WINDOW.

Of course, there are less obvious uses for technology, too. That cell phone Jessica Fletcher uses in Murder She Wrote’s final season would make a mighty fine murder weapon...

Kristen Kittscher’s debut middle grade mystery THE WIG IN THE WINDOW (Harper Children’s) will be released in June 2013. It follows the comic misadventures of two tween sleuths who suspect their school counselor is a dangerous fugitive — and just might be right! A former middle school English teacher, Kristen lives in Pasadena, California with her husband, Kai. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her running her after-school tutoring business or taking orders from her hopelessly spoiled cat and dog.


  1. Lately I've been lamenting that the days of skulking down alleys or staircases with flashlights is a form of sleuthing whose time has passed. So much screen time these days. Your post is so timely, it's uncanny -- I just finished up my Interrogation Room interview with author Paul Griffin yesterday. His sleuth in BURNING BLUE is a brilliant hacker. I asked him a whole big question about cyber sleuthing, or how to make googing and facebook-page-scrolling (inherently boring tasks) kind of fun, and I got a great answer. (But you have to wait till 11/7 to hear it!)

  2. It's an ongoing struggle, isn't it? I'm completely guilty of the late-night Google-scene myself...can't wait to hear what Paul Griffin has to say about it.

  3. Fun post, and so true. Tech really does change the game with young, modern sleuths...particularly if we reach a point where kids understand the stuff better than we do ("cant...let...that...happen," I saw to the ever-clutching crow's feet at the corners of my eyes). :)

    I, too, am very interested in hearing Paul Griffin's answer. Diana, you tease us so!

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