I’m working my way though the complete Rockford Files for the seventh or eighth time, and loving every minute of it.  A well told detective tale can capture the audience (reader or viewer) and lead them through the clues or events to the big reveal.  But the tales of Rockford, Holmes, Marlowe, The Shadow, and others, are certainly products of their time, and don’t seem to be conducive to having modern technology inserted into their tales.

Major Spoilerite Question of the Day:  When a detective can do a search on the Internet instead of putting leather to the pavement, and high-tech gadgetry replaces the craft of observation and deduction, does it (modern technology) ruin or aid in tales told in the modern detective genre?

FYI: The Major Spoilers Podcast Crew address this issue this weekend, on episode #383 of the Major Spoilers Podcast.


About Author

Stephen Schleicher began his career writing for the Digital Media Online community of sites, including Digital Producer and Creative Mac covering all aspects of the digital content creation industry. He then moved on to consumer technology, and began the Coolness Roundup podcast. A writing fool, Stephen has freelanced for Sci-Fi Channel's Technology Blog, and Gizmodo. Still longing for the good ol' days, Stephen launched Major Spoilers in July 2006, because he is a glutton for punishment. You can follow him on Twitter @MajorSpoilers and tell him your darkest secrets...


  1. It’s not just detective movies, how many thrillers and slasher ficks made before the 90’s would be ten minutes long if people had cell phones.

    “Hey sweetie, you know that weird chick that moved into my apartment and cut her hair to look like me? She may be coming by to kill and or screw you, so you might want to get a baseball bat or something. Dinner’s at seven”

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head in the first sentence. “Well-written”. See, searching on the internet doesn’t fully replace going out and getting evidence. Emailing someone isn’t the same as talking to them. Gadgetry can only go so far in “replacing” observation. Even though the steps have drastically changed (and I do sideline in private investigation so I kinda have to know all this), the heart of the process is intact.

    Detective stories can be just as compelling now in the age of digital everything– hell, in the right hands, all this stuff can even intensify the story by sending out red herrings, false trails, and even a timely clue.

    I think the problem is there’s maybe less overlap between “masterful writers in the detective genre” and “tech geek” than would be ideal.

  3. I don’t see it as a real problem if amything it benafits writers by providing a plausable explanation for things that used to be hand waved away like a detective with encylopeadic knowlege (Sherlock Holmes)or policemen with a suspiciously reliable underworld informant (Starsky and Hutch) all things that might threaten the audience’s suspension of disbelife.
    Now the writer simply inserts a scene with the detective searching google (or if he’s too cool for that have $token nerd sidekick$ do the leg work) our hero is now free to make his brilliant deductive leap, punch the bad guy, kiss the girl.

    Fade to black.

  4. Technology can easily simplify research. But there is much to detective work like talking to witnesses, looking for clues (fingerprints, tread marks, torn cloth, DNA under fingernails, etc) that will not be contained on the internet. Technology can also open a whole new arena of detective fiction which was not feasible a few years ago.
    This question reminds me of a Roger Moore Bond flick in which he used an expensive Q gadget to unlock a window in a house. This high-tech gadgetry certainly did not increase my viewing pleasure. Instead it lowered my estimation of Bond’s spy abilities. You’re telling me that Bond isn’t as good at breaking and entering as the neighborhood burglar?

  5. Technology goes forwards and creators just have to deal.

    We certainly lose certain tropes but then we gain new ones to take their place. Perfect recall may become a little less astonishing (or maybe not, considering CBS’s procedural Unforgettable centers around this ability) in an era with constant CTV and av monitoring, wiki and google at our fingertips, and mobile access to our array of human intelligence (the next best thing to having Sherlock at your side is having him on speed-dial)… but it also ups the ante when the villains have access to all these materials as well.

    I miss is the Lost World trope due to high resolution satellite cartography, but we get hackers and virtual cyber-space instead. I’m sure the railroad threatened the frontier genre, but now we get car chases and dog-fights (or we did… unmanned vehicles and stealth tech make that less relevant). Of course, the creator is always free to retreat into a period piece or a fantasy world that conforms to their desired tropes (like many action films, where stylized martial arts have increased efficacy or detective shows where OCD is more charming than crippling).

    It’s a little sad, particularly if you’re fond of contemporary fiction (or near future scifi) that gets dated (or becomes a failed prophecy with scifi) if it turns on tech but I’m happy to enjoy the veracity while we had it and look forwards to the next cutting edge. This question reminded me of the introduction of Michael Cutter as the new Executive ADA (replacing Sam Waterson’s McCoy) as heavily reliant on his Blackberry for looking up precedent, keeping abreast the news, etc. as an update to the format… a few episodes in and this distinction was all but forgotten.

  6. Whether it’s technology, informants or detective’s intuition, it’s still basically a source of clues, and the protagonist still has to interpret them. It’s still an investigation and the process is still similar.

    What changes is the feel of the setting and the nature of the detective, and maybe that’s why the Shadow’s and Philip Marlowe’s stories don’t seem to chime well with modern technology. I can see how you’d lose the old gumshoe mood when your P.I. looks up crime bosses in the intarwebz.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t have those types of stories in a highly technological setting. You can find noir stories and mysteries in all kinds of settings, including sci-fi where advanced technology is everywhere. In such universes, the tech creates the mood and feel of the setting, rather than just serving as tools and sources of plot convenience.

    But coming back to the detective genre, I think modern tech is not a limit, although some stories get bogged down in it. Look at BBC’s Sherlock and look at CSI : Miami ; both make extensive use of modern technology, and while the latter uses it as technobabble and flashy plot convenience, the other tells a good story through it.

  7. Antonio Sanciolo on

    two questions come to mind:

    1.) Is this the same sentiment that ran through sleuths’ minds when the telephone was invented?

    2.) Is technology able to solve EVERY crime?

  8. I’m reading the Sanctum SHADOW reprints – gotta love that when he wants to contact his information expert Burbank, the Shadow has to stop at a drugstore and use a pay phone. But if you put yourself in a 1930s mindset the stories are still great reads; like reading John Carter or PLANET STORIES and forgetting what we now know about the planets.

    Still, the detective genre can be updated to reflect modern technology. The Liz Salander books and BBC’s SHERLOCK is a good example, with cellphones and blogs as plot points. As long as they’re not re-telling the original stories it’s again a mindset thing: you have to accept it as an AU. DC’s First Wave series didn’t work; trying to mashup modern tech in a psuedo-30s setting only made me feel like the writers couldn’t be bothered to research the period but had to stick in cells and computers because that’s what they were comfortable with.

    I think the genre is still working well. From Willow’s web research to DC’s Oracle to McGee on NCIS and LEVERAGE’s Hardison the internet researcher has integrated his/herself into the detective tale pretty seamlessly.

  9. I would vote against going back to redo a classic with modern technology. Imagine how badly Casablanca would would if the characters could scan in the transit documents or log onto the internet and change the airline passenger roster – it just doesn’t work and there’d be no point to the whole movie. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the new BBC Sherlock Holmes series where they set it in modern times. But it was well made in the first place, and they made the characters modern, too, as opposed to having victorian characters running around with modern gadgets. You’ll see it in anime far too often where a series is set in the Victorian age or the 30s or something, and halfway through the series, the main character jumps aboard a jet plane or rocket or giant robot or something. If you’re going to do that, then why make it a period piece in the first place? Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was a retro-sci-fi flick where the mix worked. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a retro-sci-fi flick where it didn’t. Getting back to the mystery genre, so long as the technology is used realistically, and in keeping with the character, it would work. For example, if Jim Rockford had a cell phone, he’d use it instead of pulling off to the side of the road to use a phone booth, but if they did it in the spirit of the original show, he’d perpetually be out of minutes on his cell phone plan. He might drive a plug-in electric, but he’d get in to drive and find out it didn’t charge because he forgot to pay his electric bill that month. To use the internet, he’d probably have to go to the public library and chase some kid off the machine because he couldn’t afford a computer or broadband (or his probation officer had certain sites blocked) etc. It could work.

  10. My issue is I feel like when technology comes in to play the detective seems to forget all their of skills and instead rely on the technology. Batman shouldn’t need some computer to tell him some guy is running for Mayor of his city. He shouldn’t need a lip reading program to deciphere what someone is saying. He has the intelligence to do that stuff himself.

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