06 December 2014

Today’s Phones are Ruining Crime Fiction!

(Yes, this post actually gets around to mentioning crime fiction.  Wait for it…)
I’m getting awfully tired of ads for phone companies, begging me to switch, hounding me to spend more money for their latest plan, month after month after month.

Frankly, I’m longing for the good old days, when all you could get from a phone company was an ugly black rotary phone.  And by gawd, you were grateful for it too, because you had to sweat to get it.

Remember those days?  You would move into a new apartment in November, and you would phone up some snotty service rep at Ma Bell, who would treat you as if you were some sort of macrobiotic slime culture.  <Sniff – sorry!  I’m becoming nostalgic.>

You:  I’d like to get a phone as soon as possible, please.

Rep:  Let me see…how about…say…July 2017?  We can send a man out sometime between the 4th and the 28th.  You’ll have to make sure that someone’s home every second.

You:  Yes!  Oh Yes!  I’m so grateful.  Thank you!

Rep:   The colour will be black.

You:  Great! Black is cool.

Rep:  Okay, now we’ll need your first born as a deposit.

I really liked those old back dial phones.  I mean, those phones had substance; they had weight.  You could do a lot to them and they would bounce back.  I remember once playing kickball in the hallway at university, and our team would have won, but the darn ball (phone) started ringing and some fool on the other team picked it up.

Try playing kickball with a smartphone.  It ain’t so smart after a play or two.

Take my word for it: today’s flimsy phones are simply wuss. Not to mention, they are ruining crime fiction. 

At this point, I know readers are going to say, ‘Of course they are ruining crime fiction!  You can’t isolate your protagonist anymore.”  And yes, this is a problem, unless your protagonist has the intelligence of a demented chipmonk and perpetually forgets to charge their phone just before the climax in every book you write (cliché alert).

But I’m thinking beyond the obvious here.

Think of how those old black phones had significance in old black and white movies.  Remember Jimmy Stewart with the broken leg in Rear Window?  Remember those desperate calls he made over the heavy 1950s telephone…would they really be as fear-inducing if he was using an iPhone with a ring tone of ‘La Bomba?’

I mean, really.  How can you commit a really good murder with a receiver that weighs less than a padded bra?  What are you supposed to do…stuff it down someone’s throat until they choke on it?

What’s more, who can get really excited about an obscene phone call made over a cellphone the size of a playing card?  Come on now…do I really need to spell out the symbolism?

Melodie Campbell writes funny books, like the award-winning mob comedy, The Goddaughter’s Revenge.  You can buy them in stores and online at all the usual sources.


  1. Melodie, I kept picturing Lily Tomlin in the guise of (snort, snort) Ernestine. Seldom has a company deserved more ridicule. Grrr…

  2. Melodie, thanks for another amusing, yet thought-provoking writing.

    I'll be spending the rest of the day trying to think of ways to dispose of someone with a cell phone, but what the phone loses as a weapon, it gains as evidence since it's no longer necessary to "set up" tracing and keep the caller
    on the line a specific amount of time.

    And Leigh, I think the "snort, snort" phone operator is one of the best things Lily Tomlin ever did.

  3. "Is this the party to whom I am connected?"
    Oh, how I wish I'd written some of that old shtick, Leigh and Fran! Lily is in there with Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, as my top influences as a kid.

  4. Actually, I think maybe it was 'to whom I am speaking' (just discovered one can't edit a comment, rats)

  5. You are absolutely right about the impact of always being connected. I am doing a period mystery at the moment and I had to remind myself that rural places in the 1920's probably didn't have phone service of any kind!

  6. Yes, I too miss the good old days when you could be literally off the grid just by walking on a sidewalk - no cell phone tracking every step you make with its GPS; no constant pings from people calling/texting/tweeting (by the way, I'm one of the last people on earth who does NOT have an I-phone).

    Besides the humor of it (and I loved Lily Tomlin), think of the suspense that old movies could get out of those old phones: "Dial M for Murder"; "Sorry, Wrong Number"; "When a Stranger Calls"; "The Conversation"; and, most recently, "The Lives of Others"...

  7. Eve, I was thinking of Sorry, Wrong Number, when I wrote this. One of the pivotal movies to influence my addiction to suspense writing and movies.

  8. There is a scene in the movie The Stepfather which would never work with today's phones. I think Harlan Coben was the first crime writer to take advantage of the new phone technology. Whenever his hero got in trouble it always tuened out he had an open line to his sidekick who rushed to the rescue.

    By the way, Ray Bradbury described cell phones back in the fifties and said that "in touch" is the slimiest phrase in the language. Read his story "The Murderer"

  9. Melodie, as usual, you have me rolling off my seat with laughter.

    On a serious note, however, you and Fran have given me great fodder for my next post, an explosives article entitled: "How to kill or maim someone with a cell phone."


  10. Good topic. I read somewhere that Dennis Lehane turned to writing historical mysteries in part over frustration at how smart phones and social media can thwart plotting. (Need to find a missing person? What's the problem, check their twitter feed.) But I guess it does let us brainstorm creative ways to disable phones, reveal clues, and so forth.

    BTW, also a Tomlin fan. I think the line was "Have I reached the person to whom I am speaking?" Nice double meaning.

  11. Thanks for the laugh. However, it is true that today's technology has made it extremely difficult to write a decent whodunnit. I get around that most of the time by setting my stories in the 60's or 70's. A copout? Who cares? Just think of the number of great mysteries that couldn't have been written using a contemporary setting.

    And Eve, I'm with you on cell phones. I finally succumbed a few months ago, bought a prepaid phone, only because pay phones are a thing of the past. I seldom use the thing, but it has come in handy.

  12. Before cell phones & answering machines, in the book Double Indemnity, the perp had to leave his apartment for a couple of hours & needed to know if the phone rang while he was out. So he placed a very small piece of paper on top of the phone, because the vibration if the phone rang would cause the paper to fall off.

  13. I'm having such fun reading the comments here!
    The damned thing is, most trad publishers - at least in Canada - only want contemporary (or historical before WW11.) So with my publishers, I have to deal with the thing. What I'm doing now is including the cell phone as a device for the plot. More on that later, in another post.


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