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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

We have seen the thriller’s enemy and its technology?

Nico van der Merwe
Has modern technology killed the spy thriller?  That’s the question put forth by Charles Cumming in his recent piece in the Guardian. Mr. Cumming presents a good case that modern technology makes the classic spy thriller all but impossible today.  Cell phones and tablets make it far easier to track and warn people than just a few decades ago.  Meanwhile, the internet allows background check of potential spies with a few clicks of the mouse.  As Mr. Cumming’s writes any spy better have “his online banking and telephone records look authentic, that his Facebook page and Twitter feeds are up to date; and that colleagues from earlier periods in his phantom career can remember him when they are contacted out of the blue by [agents] who tracked them down via Linkedin.” Otherwise, he’s dead.

What is a good writer to do given technology’s game changing nature?

While my novels wouldn’t fall within the international spy genre, there are aspects of my thrillers that overlap with these stories.  Here’s what I have done to deal with the rapidly changing technology universe.

First, I’ve put my characters in places where technology doesn’t work. In my first novel, Unleashing Colter’s Hell, the story takes place in Yellowstone National Park. While Yellowstone’s cell coverage is “improving” there are many places in the park which are and will remain cell dead spots.  This lack of technology access levels the playing field for both hero and scoundrel. Minimizing any advantage either may have. In addition, while technology can be strength and used for evil, Unleashing Colter’s Hell reveals that relying too much on technology can be an Achilles heel.

Mr. Cumming rightly points out that historic spy thrillers relied heavily on the undercover spy to move the plot. Agents like James Bond easily moved in and out of countries, changing personas like he changed tuxedos.  This ease of movement, allows the hero to always be one step ahead of the bad guys. But today, it would be nearly impossible for Bond or his adversaries for that matter; to do this given anyone with a laptop and Wi-Fi access can check out a backstory. This fact may mark the end of the “secret” agent, who flies in on a moment’s notice, infiltrates the enemy organization through deception and witty banter. He flies out undetected once he finds his prize often with the girl in tow. More and more, this type of operation goes to special forces’ units like the Delta force and Seal teams, who rely more on speed and firepower to retrieve the prize.

Yet, secret identities are still an important plot device. But unlike the past, they must be built and maintained over a much longer time period. In Unleashing Colter’s Hell and my new novel Lost Cause, the villains have crafted their alter egos over decades rather than a few days.  They have spent years building a public profile that can easily pass all but the most intensive background check. 

This long-term covert operation is far more chilling, than the “fly-in” undercover operation, because it assumes several things. First, extensive planning to launch the operation was carried out by the spy. Extensive planning requires thought and calculation, as well as, resources and organization that the spy of old may not have had. More planning, gives the villain a greater possibility for success.  Long-time frames also allow authors to invent crimes with greater pay offs, far reaching ramifications, and unprecedented mayhem. Yet, even more sinister is the fact that an indefinite undercover operation requires the villain to develop deep conviction, patients, and discipline in order to achieve his/her goal. These facts make for great story devices upon which to hang the plot. The villain is truly committed to the cause.

But technology isn’t all bad. My characters often use technology in ways to push the drama along. For example, the thriller Lost Cause centers on a relic that once belonged to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The relic is believed to be the source of the General’s power and would give the finder the power to launch the next Civil War. A domestic terrorist group races across America unleashing terror and murder in a desperate hunt to find the item. Park Ranger Grayson Cole is ordered to stop them. Both villain and hero alike use phones, computers, and online search engines to uncover information that leads them to their ultimate goal.  This information retrieval would have taken weeks, if not months to discover even just a few decades ago. Obviously, nearly instantaneous access to the world’s collective knowledge can have extreme benefits to the thriller story teller.

So, does modern technology kill the thriller? It doesn’t have to.  Rather, like the opening of the 1970’s TV show the Six Million Dollar Man, technology gives authors the ability to write thrillers that a better, faster, stronger.

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