Marlowe meets Mission Impossible: Good guys, bad guys, and technology in the modern crime thriller

May 18, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Christopher J. Lynch

“The killer crept slowly through the bushes towards his target. Through the windows of the house he could see lights blazing inside, indicating the victim was home. He wanted to make sure that there was no way a call for help could go out. When he reached the back of the house, he took his cutters and snipped the phone line.”

Wait a minute shamus! Cut the phone line? What are you writing here…a retro piece? Welcome to the 21st century and to smart phones, cloud servers, and GPS tracking devices. If technology can alter the landscape of our everyday lives, it can extend into our writing as well. And everyone, from your most lovable protagonist, to your most wicked bad guy, are having to behave differently these days–whether they like it or not.

Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe

Take the automobile. Unless your character happens upon a vintage vehicle, he will have a lot harder time stealing it then just putting two wires together. But besides being more difficult to abscond with, they are also easier to recovery, thanks to systems like Lojack and OnStar. The police can even have OnStar disable the vehicle remotely, as long as they follow a strict set of protocols (visual contact with the vehicle, and a confirmation callback to the requesting police station).

Tracking a vehicle can be easier for your pet sleuth as well, thanks to GPS devices no larger than a cigarette pack. Rather than maneuver in and out of traffic to keep up a tail, today’s PI can watch the whole thing go down on the screen of his iPad. Still, every technology has its counter-measure, and the well-heeled bad guy of today would carry an RF scanner with him to sweep the car of any broadcasting bugs.

My character, a professional blackmailer named One Eyed Jack, encounters this same vexing counter strike when he tries to track some Russian mobsters. Thwarted in his attempt to follow their movements using a GPS device, he turns to even more creative technology–a UAV, or as it’s more commonly known, a drone. These airborne “eyes in the sky” are gaining wider usage with everyone from law enforcement, oil and gas production, timber; farming–even pig hunters use them.

And speaking of “eyes in the sky,” have you ever plugged your home address into Google Earth and taken a close look at it from outer space? Before he checks out a hotel where a compromising video was taken, my character looks at it on his phone and knows the layout before he ever sets foot onto the property.

It’s hard to believe that for as much as it’s transformed our lives; the Internet has only been around since 1983. Pre-Orwellian by a mere year, this either world has connected billions of people around the globe–sometimes anonymously. Do you think any modern kidnapper would waste his time clipping individual words or letters from newspapers and magazine and gluing them onto a sheet of paper to make his ransom note? They would use a disposable email address that, like a Mission Impossible tape recorder, self-destructs.

The email could then be routed through a Byzantine network of offshore “Spider” servers, that kept its source point so convoluted it was essentially untraceable. So much for paper and scissors.

Besides communication, the web is increasingly being used as alternate file storage. Does your bad guy have some scandalous pictures of the congressman and his mistress he’d like to keep secure? Who needs actual prints kept in a safe deposit box when he could keep as many digital copies as he wanted out on the cloud? And if he’d like a little insurance policy just to make sure they aren’t forgotten about if he coincidentally meet an untimely demise, he could open an account at Deathswitch.

Originally created as a way for people to announce their death and say goodbye to friends and family through the use of letters, photos or video, the website service could also function as a virtual “poison-pill.” An account is setup to prompt for a login on a routine basis. If the login request isn’t responded to after a certain number of attempts, the site assumes that the owner has gone to the great beyond and then emails a group of recipients any information he’d like to send them. And those recipients could be the media, and that information could be the pictures of the congressman and his chippy.

No story about technological advances would be complete without a discussion of cell phones, and how much they have evolved over the past couple of decades–and continue to at a meteoritic pace. Once the size of a brick–and about as smart–these ubiquitous mobile devices have come so far and so fast, that they have changed our everyday lives in ways Captain Kirk couldn’t have even imagined.

Need to get the license plate number of that car the bad guy is driving? Snap a picture of it with your phone. A wife thinks her husband may be cheating on her? She can “accidentally” leave her phone in his car and then activate the “find my Phone” app to see if he really did go off to work that day. Want to see who’s trying to unlock your phone and check out your calls? Activate the secret camera app that silently takes a picture any time the phone is unlocked.

“Spoofing” a different number is also a handy feature for your gumshoe to keep in his toolbox. A bounty-hunter/PI once explained to me how he snookered a felon who had jumped bail into a trap to apprehend him. They knew that the felon was in the Phoenix area where his mom still lived. They had the felon’s cell phone number–and his mother’s. They spoofed the mother’s number and called the felon, impersonating an EMT and informing him that his mother had had a heart attack and that they were transporting her to the hospital. When the felon arrived at the hospital to check on her, they arrested him without incident, a perfect blend of modern technology and good old-fashioned deception.

Obviously, I’m only scratching the virtual surface here of what is possible, but you get the point. While your characters and story doesn’t have to be all about wiz-bang high tech toys, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we live in a rapidly changing world and that our work eventually has to reflect that change. Think of it as spice for your story without changing the meat of it. And maybe your protagonist is a stuck in the mud curmudgeon who doesn’t hold for new-fangled things, but remember, some of the earliest adopters of new technology are the criminals themselves.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Christopher J. Lynch is a writer living in Los Angeles. His novel, One Eyed Jack is the first in the series about the adventures–and misadventures–of a professional blackmailer. You can learn more on his website. And you can check out a video trailer of his protagonist in action at:


  1. You brought up things I never considered. Now my mind is racing with new ideas (and a little scared at what is possible). Great article!

    • Thanks Diane,
      I’ve just scratched the surface. As fast as this technology moves, my article is probably already outdated. LOL

  2. Chris, great piece that also outdates phrases like “hanging up the phone” in contemporary mysteries although that phrase seems far more instantly visual and interesting than simply “closing the connection.”
    Thanks for all the info.

  3. What a great article. Thanks!

  4. Great article, Chris! Now I know who to go to for tech help!

    • Thanks Connie,
      I’m fortunate to work with a lot of young self-described “geeks” so I can find out just about anything I want.



  1. CHRISTOPHER J LYNCH » Marlowe meets Mission Impossible - [...] the way we portray our characters in our books and short stories? Check out the article I wrote for…

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