Stephanie McCarthy

Archive for June, 2013|Monthly archive page

Stop Killing My Clues!

In Fun Stuff on June 30, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Stop Killing My Clues!
How Modernity is Ruining the Best Clues of Detective Fiction

I’m sorry, but since everyone’s stopped smoking the quality and quantity of clues in detective novels has rapidly dwindled. Forget for a moment that lipstick-smudged cigarette butt outside the conservatory, the sheer variety of cigarettes themselves provided elaborate and interesting clues: Egyptian, French, American, each cigarette held a clue to the identity of the smoker. And the paraphernalia! Lighters, cigarette cases (always engraved with someone’s initials and found next to the victim); and the cigarette holder, long and elegant, the woman behind it equally so.
Plus, let’s face it, when you’re wearing 1930’s couture, a cigarette just looks cool.

Ah, Butlers. Where would detective fiction be without them? The ubiquitous loyal servant who hears all, sees all and reveals nothing. The butler was the font of all household information: who was where, who was doing what, who was bonking whose wife… Detectives knew to always ask the Butler. Butlers were usually good for two, maybe even three interviews, each time disclosing yet another link in the chain, another tidbit to keep the pages moving. I think some people deliberately write period mysteries just to have a butler (and cigarettes and letters and telegrams…)

The Internet
Yes, we can do research at the speed of light, but guess what, it’s BORING. Information that once had to be obtained by actually talking to people can now be done sitting in front of a computer or on your phone. Efficient, but hardly riveting stuff to drive a plotline. “He took out his cell phone and did a quick search.” BLECH. Go to the library, dammit! I guarantee the killer will follow you and hide in the stacks, watching as you unravel your clues.

Gone are the days of the handwritten missive hastily thrust in the fireplace (but never fully burned). Letters used to be everywhere, and handwriting provided vital clues as to the identity of the writer (educated, illiterate, educated but pretending to be illiterate?) No one actually writes anymore (she types). And you can’t take a stack of yellowed emails and tie them up with a lavender ribbon and hide them in your dressing table to become the stuff of blackmail later. There’s no DRAMA in emails. In fact, now that I’m writing this, I think maybe those Golden Age detectives had it too easy.

That missing roll of film that could crack the case wide open? GONE. Now all we have are memory cards (zzzzzz) or the camera itself. You can’t even find blackmail-worthy negatives in the locked desk drawer (no one actually develops their pictures anymore). The darkroom still exists for those specializing in photography, but the mystery would have to be about… a darkroom. Maybe Dorothy Sayers could’ve made a crack at it but for someone like me…yeah. Not so much.

Those carefully constructed blackmail notes meticulously cut from the day’s newspaper? Nope, sorry, not anymore. Everyone reads the paper online (See, Rant against Internet). Plus, the newspaper was great for posting requests for information to lure out a murderer or provocative advertisements for a detective agency. Now budgets are so pared you’re lucky to get an obituary. Newspapers could give us an important date, a smudged fingerprint; there’s even a Christie where people were INVITED to a murder… in the newspaper! And don’t even get me started on telegrams.

Ladies used to wear gloves and many a mystery writer was saved by it. You found Lady Wilton’s glove where? And it was blood-stained? Oh, dear me. Murderers always wore gloves that had to be disposed of, usually ineptly. And everyone had multiple pairs of gloves that at some point the detective would make them go fetch… only to find they were missing! Where did you last see your gloves? In the front hall, by the telephone, where the butler took the message???

Where is that butler, anyway…?