Have you ever wondered why so much of today’s popular entertainment is retro? Why are so many television programs, for instance, set anywhere from the Victorian age to the 1980s? It could simply be a trend which, like all trends, will eventually end. Or there could be something more deliberate at work. My belief is that writers in all media are harkening back to earlier times because it is far easier to write stories set in a world where cellphones do not exist.
One of the staples of crime fiction is person-in-jeopardy, either through being chased, or through being kidnapped, or simply hiding out to keep the bad guys from finding them. Traditionally they are on their own, with no way to summon help. Today, however, all anyone has to do is whip out their smartphone and call for help─end of story. There are, of course, a few benefits to digital phonery in modern crime stories: detectives no longer have to follow footprints because they can triangulate phone locations to find a suspect; and no one has to wait for a crime photographer to show up because anyone with cellphone is a cinematographer. But in my view the drawbacks outweigh the advantages.
Today in addition to figuring out the means, the motive, and the opportunity in a crime tale, writers now have to divine ways to explain why the victim doesn’t simply pull out his or her phone, call 911, and say, “Hey, I’m in a car trunk, come get me.” There are three low-hanging rationalizations for not doing this: 1) The cell phone was lost or stolen; 2) Its battery ran down; and 3) It cannot get service at this location. While I have been forced to use all three, I believe they should not become cliché’s of the 21st century. After deploying Option 2 one time I actually heard from a reader who noticed my detective’s tendency to forget to charge up his phone, and who recommended a particular brand of cellphone chargers for car so he’d never be caught phoneless again. Never mind that the character’s forgetfulness was a character trait, the reader felt even a fictional person who didn’t have phone access was as unrealistic as werewolves.
As a result I spend a fair amount of time working on ways to get rid of cellphones in my stories. In my most recent story for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine titled “Iguana Don,” which appears in the July/August 2022 issue, my protagonist has been kidnapped and is being held in the basement of a house from which there is no apparent means of escape. I was nearly finished with the first draft when the obvious suddenly dawned on me: my guy could simply pull out Mr. Smarty and call for help. After pondering the problem, I opted for the no-service rationale, but disguised it by having my protag first think about the embarrassment the revelation of his predicament would bring, particularly since he has failed to fully comprehend the extent of danger he was in. Only upon realizing his life may depend on his calling out for help does he try and find out he can’t get service. The one time he really needs his phone, it fails him. I actually enjoyed casting the cellphone as part of the problem and not the solution.
The most creative explanation I ever dredged up from Lake Desperation was to have a character relinquish his phone before going into a Hollywood movie preview (as anyone who has ever attended a pre-release screening knows is mandatory), only to be abducted by bad guys before he could retrieve it. At present, I’m toying with the idea of having a protagonist fail to produce a cellphone because his dog ate it.
While some may disagree, I believe the days of writing any kind of crime, mystery, or thriller story without first worrying about how to deal with cellphones is history.
Unless, of course, one goes historical.