Friday, October 19, 2007

Fictional Body Count Too Low in World Technology Capital

Keith Raffel here with a rant.

What’s wrong with Silicon Valley as a setting for a mystery anyway?

Everything from TV’s Law and Order to Mickey Spillane’s pulp fiction plays out on the mean streets of New York. Georges Simenon made Paris a hotbed of fictional homicide, a tradition followed today in my friend Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc mysteries and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Since Raymond Chandler put pen to paper, Los Angeles has garnered more than its fair share of fictional crime-solving. And a half hour drive north of the Valley, San Francisco has been the setting for the very best of the mystery genre since the 1930 publication of The Maltese Falcon and the subsequent movie version that made Humphrey Bogart a star.

Hey, you writers of crime fiction! What about Silicon Valley? Commute traffic these days flows from San Francisco to the Valley, not the other way around. A feud among board members of a Palo Alto computer giant begets corporate espionage. Soaring stock prices engender financial shenanigans like the backdating of stock options. The high value attached to small devices leads to warehouse robberies by armed gangs. The engine that drives the Valley is fueled in no small part by greed, envy, and gluttony – to name only three of the Deadly Sins.

And yet, on a recent list of the ten best-selling mysteries and thrillers, four are set in New York, two in Paris, and one in L.A. Isn’t it time for a change? With the perfect ingredients for a mystery just lying here, why do so many authors persist in setting their mysteries in the old standbys, while virtually none take advantage of the seething turmoil of the Valley?

Technology as the background for a compelling story can lead to bestsellerdom as Joseph Finder and Michael Crichton have proven. If Silicon Valley is the center of world technology, why is it not the hub of high tech mysteries and thrillers? Of course, behind the Valley’s high tech image lurks very human motives and emotions – the Valley’s position at the center of world technology is based in no small part on disloyalty and betrayal. If young technologists could not break away from companies run by an older generation of entrepreneurs to start up their own firms, Silicon Valley would still be known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight and covered by orchards rather than tilt-up buildings.

The neglect of the Valley as a setting cannot be that business is the wrong background for a mystery. The Enron trial played out in compelling drama on the nation’s finance pages. Financial meltdowns are all too familiar to Valley denizens. Using the dot com implosion as background could give a mystery writer a chance to show the mighty made humble – always a popular theme – or show how a fallen icon can rise again – an equally popular storyline. And the mixture of technical talent from India, China, Israel, and dozens of other countries here in the Valley can add interest and conflict to any story.

Sure, we in the Valley are not quite so cocky as we were in 1999, but mystery writers have shown themselves to be more than adept in setting books among dissolution and decline. The late Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen mysteries take place amidst the corruption of modern-day Italy, and Stuart Kaminsky’s series about Moscow Police Inspector Rostnikov begins during the last days of the Soviet state.

Everyone knows sex sells, and I don’t think that sex – whether premarital, marital, or extramarital – is a missing ingredient in Valley life. It is true that, in pursuit of an IPO, sex drives may be sublimated and the opposite sex neglected. But when the programmer looks up from his PC, when the biotech researcher looks up from her microscope, birds and bees can take wing.

No market is perfect. We all recall stocks that scarcely moved for years before moving into the stratosphere. Buying low and getting in on the bottom floor is what investors want to do. Writers have an opportunity to buy into Silicon Valley as a setting for their crime fiction now, well before it is overrun by fictional detectives like New York, Paris, L.A., or San Francisco. The drive to succeed, the billions at stake can fuel murderous fires. I for one believe it’s time for mystery and thriller writers to start setting their books in this world of money, technology, and, of course, insane real estate prices. Maybe the process has started already with my fellow techie Mark Coggins’s Augustus Riordan series and Hooked by Matt Richtel, but maybe not –the action even in these books center more around San Francisco than the Valley.

So, just how long will we have to wait until the fictional body count in the world’s technology capital climbs to the levels reached by the world capitals of finance and culture?

Note: A version of this posting, called "More Dead Bodies, Please," ran in the Palo Alto Weekly.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Hm, maybe Odelia Grey should take a field trip to Silicon Valley. Do Ian and Rowena have a guest room? Odelia could get in a jam and Cape Weathers will have to come down from the foggy city to rescue her. How does that sound?

Mark Terry said...

Well, you've brow-beaten me into making a comment. Ya happy now????

As a guy who wrote a computer-oriented novel (DIRTY DEEDS) I think sometimes people get scared off by it. Why, I don't know. The toughest thing I noticed about writing it was anything you write about computers is going to be outdated long before it gets published. Note John Sandford's Kidd novels, especially the first one or two. Hell, Kidd was using an Amiga in the first two!!!

But the point remains, I think. I'm from the Detroit area, and if ever there was a city that would seem to inspire crime more than NYC or LA, I'd think it would be Detroit, but there just don't seem to be that many really successful novelists writing about crime in Detroit--Loren Estleman, yes, and sometimes Elmore Leonard, but he's all over the place, not just Detroit.

Julia Buckley said...

You've convinced me, Keith! All future mysteries should be set in Silicon Valley!

But I am partial to Chicago, too. :)

G.M. Malliet said...

Think Washington, D.C. Lots of crooks. Lots of IT companies. Rife, rife, rife with corruption.

Felicia Donovan said...

The Black Widows, Alexandria in particular (a.k.a. the "Geek Goddess"), would be delighted to visit the Valley, but oddly, they remain in New Hampshire.

Mark, interesting comment about the difficulties in writing about technology and it propensity towards obsolesence, but I think that's only if the plot is focused on geeky stuff. Characters are timeless whether they're operating Amiga's or TRS-80's (and now I'm dating myself).

Sue Ann: Can you imagine if ALL of our collective characters joined forces? Wouldn't that be a hoot? Margo would be more than happy to whip up some of her chocolate delights for Odelia. All the Black Widows would join in as long as chocolate was involved. But wait - where would that leave Cape, Darcy, Duffy, Cotten et al?

Keith Raffel said...

The Hardy Boys joined up with Nancy Drew in a SuperMysteries series. Why not our characters, Sue Ann and Felicia?

Boy, Mark, doesn't take much to browbeat you, does it? I do think people like to learn about the past, about a different culture, etc. when reading their fiction

Julia, I am Chicago-born, but Silicon Valley bred. I have a foot in both camps.

Gin, couldn't agree with you more about DC. That's where my next book is set.

Kevin Wignall said...

The Blue Nowhere by Jeffery Deaver?

Mark Terry said...

Huh. Maybe we should write a serial novel.

Rick Bylina said...

It's simple. The environment is too sterile. It is about money, sex, and power and not necessarily murder. People aren't on top of each other.

That's why, if'n you can manufacture a good story, one set there or Plano or Cary or any of the Silican Valley knock-offs will see well just like an Updike story set in suburbia.