Writing crime in an age of digital surveillance

So I was reading the first Kurt Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, an exceptional book that introduced the reluctant detective to readers way back in 1991 (2001, I think, for English readers). Faceless Killers is an archetypal Nordic Noir book: bleak, snow-filled landscapes; disturbingly violent crimes in the middle of nowhere; a commentary on changing social realities; and a police team filled with eccentric characters, not to mention Wallander himself, the alcoholic, recently divorced police officer (and acting police chief for much of this book).

Much of the book revolves around tracking down the suspect[s]: Are they refugees? Should the police check all the incoming refugee records? Did the victims have any security boxes? Where did they bank? Cigarette butts have been found — can we know who smoked them? A suspect begins to move; a surveillance team is set up, and so on.

One must remember that this book is set in 1989–90, so none of the advancements the world has made in digital surveillance existed then. But it got me thinking: how does one write a crime novel set in our times? And by our times, I mean the modern surveillance state? Snowden pretty much revealed to the world that every phone call is tracked; almost every new mobile phone can be located (I’ve seen my SO’s lost phone travel across the Yamuna river in the back seat of an auto, where she left it); DNA is supreme; and CCTVs exist almost everywhere (including in public loos — but that’s a crime, folks! Be wary!)

What can a suspect do in a time of digital surveillance, when life has become so much easier for the investigator? And how will crime writing evolve in the days to come, when surveillance mechanisms are set to rise, and Google and Facebook will learn almost everything about you (and maybe understand you better than yourself)?

I am not by profession a crime writer, so I’ll leave it to the more experienced folks to have better answers, but let me hazard a few guesses:

  1. Omniscient surveillance — especially of the state variety — can become a writing tool by itself. So what if a suspect has been tracked on camera, or located via a stolen mobile phone? Writers can debate the morality of such surveillance: a suspect belongs to a minority group, and has been picked up on multiple terror charges on the basis of their Facebook posts. Is that a valid concern? Do Facebook and Google genuinely represent who we are, and what we are likely to do? Can algorithms replace human consciousness?

I am not imagining these scenarios in a speculative location or timeframe, but in the now, the present. It’s entirely possible writers may choose to revert to the past, or make their protagonists [or antagonists] digital hermits. The latter is something I personally don’t think can happen in today’s world; it is near impossible to not have a digital footprint today. The former is something most crime writers continue to do (The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair).

I am inclined to agree with J.M. Coetzee, who in a letter to Paul Auster, wrote:

“The presence/absence of mobile phones in one’s fictional world is going to be, I suspect, no trivial matter. Why? Because so much of the mechanics of novel writing, past and present, is taken up with making information available to characters or keeping it from them. One used to be able to get pages and pages out of the non-existence of the telegraph/telephone and the consequent need for messages to be borne by hand or even memorised.”

“Because so much of the mechanics of novel writing, past and present, is taken up with making information available to characters or keeping it from them.”

Switch ‘novel writing’ to ‘crime writing’, and the dilemmas of a digital existence are apparent. Tackling the digital will be, I suspect, of paramount importance to any crime writing set in the present. So my question to crime writers is, how will you face off against digital surveillance in your work?



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Amish Raj Mulmi

Consulting Editor @ Writers' Side Literary Agency. Writes mostly on books & publishing, and Nepali history. More at amishmulmi.wordpress.com