Modern Murder Mysteries Pt.3: The Spy With Breathing Problems
As much as I love Golden Age mysteries and 1950s thrillers, they have to be considered in the zeitgeist of the times. The shocking secrets hidden by murderers and their victims are no longer shocking.
The motives that women concealed from men and vice versa were once the stuff of great mysteries. Murderous impulses could often be traced to the covering up of sexual indiscretions; secret abortions, children born out of wedlock, ‘mad’ heirs, unmentionable diseases and promiscuity (especially among females – Agatha Christie seemed obsessed with censuring party girls and flighty numbers). It’s harder to power a story using these elements without turning women into victims – although Francis Iles managed to create a willing victim who is somehow heroic in ‘Before the Fact’. The domestic noir housewives of the fifties took their revenge for being shut back in kitchens after the war. They turned the tables on their gaslighting husbands and broke free. Margaret Millar showed that revenge is a dish best served to a husband demanding his dinner.
But all those subjects that could not be mentioned in polite company have now been forensically aired. Mercifully, gay men are no longer required to slope off somewhere and shoot themselves out of shame, and single motherhood is no reason for a blackmail plot. Child-grooming and sex traffic have become the new motors for many a modern thriller and the ‘missing child’ set-up has become a overworked cliché.
As for locations, well, exotic isn’t enough by itself anymore. Remember when James Bond stepped into Shirley Eaton’s Florida hotel room at the start of ‘Goldfinger’? Ever the snob, Ian Fleming was giving his fans glimpses of a lifestyle about which they could only fantasize.
Cheap travel made the exotic ordinary and turned the hideouts of the rich into overcrowded selfie spots. After low-cost airlines and Air B&Bs let everyone into Fleming’s world, spies became less interesting. In reality, the casino tables were not surrounded by beautiful spies but by portly dudes with combovers. Bond was exposed as an alcoholic heavy smoker with a condescending attitude to women.
There are still plenty of detectives solving crimes in picturesque parts, but the locations that work best for me eschew lifestyle-porn for a sense of otherness, as in Jane Harper’s ‘The Dry’, memorably set in the drought-stricken Australian outback, and in Jason Goodwin’s ‘Yashim the Ottoman Detective’ series we’re led into another world by an expert in Turkish history.
Here’s another problem; bank robberies now seem impossibly quaint. In the last two decades they have fallen by 90% in the UK thanks to the banks’ adoption of time locks, cameras and active combat systems. Hardly any guns are used because there are only a handful in the country and the police control the supply of bullets. We’ve come a long way from crooks laying maps on kitchen tables and planning their escape through backstreets with the aid of an A-Z and a bakery van. Now they’re tracked by drones and helicopters armed with laser-sight cameras.
There’s hope for the heist-writer, though. The real-life seniors who carried out the £200m Hatton Garden robbery in 2015 had the nation agog and inspired two movies and several novels, even though they were defeated by a misunderstanding of how license plate recognition works.
Teens (and Arthur Bryant) quickly discovered that the addition of a cheap hooded sweatshirt could foil a camera, and in TV’s ‘The Bridge’ a villain fools a busload of children with the addition of a false beard, an idea going right back to Sherlock Holmes. In ‘Off The Rails’ I staged a murderous attack on a crowded tube escalator surrounded by CCTV cameras just to show it could be done. Sometimes it’s better to confront the challenges of the 21st century head on. Necessity makes for originality.
The next book I write will be my fiftieth, and it’s clear that there are new mysteries to unravel with every tick of the clock. When the game gets tougher, you raise your game.