Narrative Devices

Rewiring the mystery novel for the digital age

Illustration by Kyle Metcalf

Toward the end of Joy Fielding’s She’s Not There, the characters reach a point when a DNA test is all that stands between them and the novel’s pivotal truth. Caroline, the book’s main character, wants to call her friend Peggy, a health-care worker, for advice—but she’s at a wedding reception and won’t be available until the morning.

Michelle, Caroline’s twenty-year-old daughter, shortcuts this plan by asking, “Hasn’t anybody here ever heard of the Internet?” She rushes upstairs to google DNA testing clinics and returns with addresses on a piece of paper. But this raises another question: Hasn’t Michelle ever heard of smartphones? This dash to an unseen computer is an odd trip for her to make at a time when young adults are rarely without their iPhone or Android.

She’s Not There is a near-techless thriller. The book starts when Caroline gets a landline call from a teen named Lili, who claims to be Caroline’s daughter, abducted as an infant from a Mexican resort fifteen years earlier. Lili can’t email pictures and can communicate only by phone or in person, because her parents “never had computers in the house,” as they wanted to keep Facebook and porn away from their kids. The tension and agony involved in a lost-and-potentially-recovered child provide material for a gripping story, one that delivers high drama and a satisfying resolution. But the book, set primarily in present-day San Diego, also includes sequences that our contemporary way of life—the instant access to data, the ability to contact other people immediately via text messaging—renders anachronistic.

Fielding has been writing steel-trap thrillers for decades now, and it’s tempting to see her reluctance to absorb the everyday use of digital devices as generational. But many young writers from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Nordic countries also seem interested in keeping the more pervasive kinds of technology out of their plots. Some do this by focusing on the recent or distant past, as Elisabeth de Mariaffi does in her ’90s-era crime thriller The Devil You Know; others move the action outside the range of cellphone coverage, as Ruth Ware does in In a Dark, Dark Wood, where the characters are invited to a remote cottage for a bachelorette party. Ware holds off on revealing that the bride-to-be is marrying protagonist Nora’s ex-boyfriend—a piece of knowledge that would be virtually impossible for Nora to be unaware of in this era of Facebook invites and Instagram engagement snapshots. Other writers isolate their characters in more extreme ways. Nick Cutter’s The Deep, for example,is set in a futuristic lab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, but crucial equipment is broken, and contact with the outside world is minimal.

Device-free narratives can be found in every facet of the thriller genre—from horror and suspense to cozy mysteries and serial-killer slashers. Omitting the ubiquity of the digital in modern life makes it easier to create the kind of thrills readers crave. While the advanced science of a DNA test ultimately establishes Lili’s identity, no feat of CSI-like ingenuity reconstructs the night Caroline’s child disappeared. For that, we need what such books have always taken as their fuel: deduction, interrogation, and a gradual falling-into-place of memories, confessions, and revelations. Indeed, as TV and film grow more narratively obsessed with technology, and CGI techniques permit telecommunications-related crime-solving to be depicted onscreen, near-techless thrillers such as She’s Not There provide readers with a retreat from the world. They create landscapes conducive to the suspension of disbelief crucial to what Martin Amis calls the “airless and arcane but internally coherent” world of an effective thriller.

Yet thrillers have always done more than entertain—they also perform a canary-in-a-coal-mine function, alerting us to anxieties that take longer to surface in the culture at large. The panic around homosexuality in England after the Oscar Wilde trials emerged most powerfully in Gothic tales and horror stories from the 1890s through the early twentieth century. From the 1940s to the mid-1970s, American and British domestic suspense novels explored the struggles of women trapped in societal expectations by bringing crimes, and their psychological aftermath, into the home.

Today, when we can discover the unedited, intimate contents of millions of lives online, modern thrillers are intended to reassure us that secrets are still possible and sometimes require unravelling.

Secrecy, of course, animates many of the books we read, be they high-literary, popular fiction, or poetry (sonnets often hit us with a late-breaking disclosure, or volta). Nowhere, however, is the role of secrets more central than in suspense fiction. By ignoring the contemporary reality of instant communication, authors such as Fielding are preserving the nail-biting satisfactions of their art. But how much longer can these books provide escapism-seeking readers with relief given that their trick of withholding details is in direct conflict with our expectation that information always wants to be free? Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg once argued that sharing personal information had become a “social norm,” one his company had been created to reflect. If he’s right, even techless thrillers won’t forever be able to avoid the disruptive reality of an information-rich shared life.

Enter Iain Reid. His debut novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is a unique example of how suspense conventions can be used to create an allegory about the digitally created self beset by the dangers of being hacked, revealed, exposed.

The book starts as an innocuous visiting-the-folks tale, with the unnamed young narrator being driven to the farmhouse of her boyfriend’s parents. She’s edging out of her relationship with Jake but can’t exactly explain why or bring herself to tell him that it’s over. While the book’s present-day setting is confirmed through a detailed discussion of the laboratory where Jake works, which boasts a “protein crystallography room” and “crystallization robots,” Reid ratchets up the suspense by using the only recurring piece of everyday tech, the narrator’s smartphone, to isolate the protagonist.

Our narrator doesn’t use her phone the way most people on a long, quiet, and tension-filled road trip might. She doesn’t tweet, play Candy Crush, watch videos, or surf the Internet. She just receives mostly ignored calls from The Caller, who sounds like a middle-aged man “with a distinctly feminine voice, almost as if he was putting on a flat female intonation.” As the narrator is drawn deeper into Jake’s world, it becomes evident that The Caller knows something about her that she doesn’t. Even more creepily, The Caller’s number shows up as a series of digits it takes her a moment to recognize: her own number. It also becomes clear that the narrator is, somehow, keeping secrets from herself. Reid introduces this possibility first by showing us a series of characters—Jake, Jake’s parents, and Jake’s mysterious brother—who are not quite what they seem, and then by leading us to question the one seemingly reliable touchstone that the book has given us: the narrator. There’s no reason to doubt the truth of what she’s narrating, but there may be reasons to doubt her.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an existential whodunit. It isn’t about solving a crime. It’s about investigating the unknowability of the self, a subject that the loss of privacy has made freshly complex. Thanks to the extended social reach of our public selves, our in-jokes, selfies, drunken pronouncements and flirtations with near-strangers may no longer belong to us. Reid plays on this fear. Technology invades his narrator’s life in a manner that makes the real-world danger clear: once our thoughts and conversations become public commodities, we may have little left with which to define ourselves as individuals. We may even find that our individuality doesn’t really exist at all.

Reid is aware of these anxieties in a way that many of his peers aren’t. Fielding’s tidy resolutions, for example, add up to an ultimately reassuring story about constructing a stable identity, a viable personal story. But Reid is not trying to soothe readers who fear that their identities are vulnerable to theft. Indeed, the release of tension we get at the end of She’s Not There is nowhere to be found in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Even when we discover who’s who and what’s what, the ultimate question is left unanswered: whether we can keep our secret selves.

This appeared in the May 2016 issue.

Naben Ruthnum
Naben Ruthnum (@NabenRuthnum) is a Journey Prize-winning author and a former books columnist for the National Post.
Kyle Metcalf
Kyle Metcalf ( is an artist. His work has appeared in the New York Times and the Guardian.