by Janis Patterson
For my birthday last year The Husband gave me a wonderful new car. It has special lights, all kinds of gizmos and enough electronics to run a small city. I love it. I absolutely love it.
As a writer, I hate it, and all like it.
You see, my new chariot isn’t all that unusual. There were a lot more goodies we could have added but didn’t, but even the few we got are enough to make modern cars marvels for their owners – and hell for a mystery writer.
Who hasn’t read (or written) a mystery where the hero or heroine is in a car trying to get away from the bad guys, so they turn into a convenient driveway or forest or whatever, put on the parking brake, turn off the lights and lie down across the seat to make the car appear invisible or at least parked – but of course keeping the engine running for a fast getaway. Once the bad guys speed past, our hero backs out, and speeds in the opposite direction – usually without turning on the lights until they’re way off the bad guys’ radar.
Just try that in a modern car. Lights go on when you just unlock it or open the door. More lights go on when you start the engine. There is no way to just stop the car, engine running, without the thing being lit up like a Christmas tree. Even after the engine is turned off there are still lights, usually on a timer probably so the driver can reach his front door safely – all of which is great for a real life driver, but a trial for a mystery writer.
Worse, even if you can get around the light problem in one way or another, there are the various forms of electronic assistance programs, which are really little more than trackers. In real life they can be wonderful, as in the case of a young friend of mine who recently had a nasty car accident. Before her car had stopped spinning the assistance program was activated, with a voice asking if she needed the police or an ambulance. For her – and all real people – I delight in such life-preserving technology.
As a writer… not so much. How can I have my victim stuck in the bottom of a ravine so long that it can’t be ascertained whether his demise was the result of accident or murder? Or however I want to kill him? I can’t always have my characters driving old cars without all the electronic bells and whistles, and I don’t always want to write in an era before this.
I’m sure technology has always been a trial for writers. Probably some poor writer bemoaned the loss of the buggy whip and the (relatively) speedy pace of the Model T, to say nothing of the instant communication of the hand-crank telephone. Nothing changes, really – just the props. No matter how we try to adapt, how we twist our stories, there’s always a bigger, badder bit of technology just waiting to challenge us. But as writers we will win. We can always out-think a machine.
At least, I hope so.
Just don’t get me started on cell phones!