My Friend’s a Computer Hacker*

Especially in today’s world, computer know-how is a real asset – perhaps even a requirement – for any criminal investigation. In fact, several of the larger police departments have special units devoted to computer forensics. That makes sense, when you consider how much information (including information about victims and suspects) is available online. It’s not surprising, then, that there are plenty of characters in crime fiction who are expert at using computers, sometimes even hacking. Certainly they can find out a lot of information that the rest of us might not be able to locate so easily.

Donna Leon’s Elettra Zorzi, for instance, is the assistant to Venice vice-questore Giuseppe Patta. She’s smart and resourceful, which she needs to be to manage both her boss and the questura. She’s also very, very good with computers. No matter what information Commissario Guido Brunetti needs, Signorina Elettra can find it. She can even get information that isn’t – ahem – widely available.

Aimée Leduc is a Parisian private investigator who ‘stars’ in Cara Black’s series. She’s taken on a number of different sorts of cases since she took over the agency from her father. Her specialty, though, is computer fraud and other computer crimes. She knows how to find whatever there is to find on a computer, and she uses those skills to get the information she needs. Sometimes, of course, she finds out things that it would have been safer for her not to learn…

Cathy Ace’s WISE Women series features four protagonists who comprise the Wise Enquiry Agents, a private investigation firm based in Wales. One protagonist, Carol Hill, is Welsh; another, Christine Wilson-Smythe, is Irish.  Mavis MacDonald is Scottish, and Annie Parker’s English (hence the acronym used in the agency’s name). Each of the four women has her own strengths and areas of expertise, and the others rely on that. Carol’s particular strength is computers. She can find information, communicate with her partners, do online research, and more. Her fellow agents know that they can count on Carol to get the online information they need to solve cases. She also handles a lot of the agency’s online outreach and communication with clients.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman owns a bakery in a large Melbourne building where she also lives. She didn’t set out to be a detective, but she gets drawn into mysteries when something happens in the building or to one of the other people who live in it. Sometimes solving those mysteries requires good computer skills; and, although Chapman knows how to use a computer, she’s no expert. So, she relies on a group of young men who live in the same building. They have a software company called Nerds Inc, and can make a computer do or tell whatever they want. Chapman depends on them when her own computer isn’t working; she also gets their help when she needs online or other computer-based information.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in late-1990s Shanghai. At that time, more and more information is available online, and Chen knows that.  In fact, online fora are getting popular in China, since it’s harder to monitor what users do online than it is to monitor, say, telephone conversations. In Enigma of China, for instance, an online forum accuses Zhao Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, of corruption, and provides supporting evidence. When Zhao is found dead, Chen suspects that it’s a case of murder, and starts to ask questions. Part of the trail leads to the online forum, which is managed by a computer expert named Melong. He’s very skilled at hacking and at evading government officials who want to shut down the forum. His knowledge and help prove to be useful to Chen in finding out the truth about Zhao’s death. Later, in Shanghai Redemption, we learn that Melong is no longer working with the forum. In fact, he’s given up hacking as part of an agreement with the government. But he hasn’t lost his skills. He hacks into emails that help Chen to solve the mystery of a missing man, and to go after some very highly-placed, corrupt people.

In Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay, we meet Caleb Zelic, who, with his business partner Frankie Reynolds, runs a Victoria-based corporate security company. When Zelic gets an urgent text from his old friend Gary ‘Gaz’ Marsden, he goes to Marsden’s house right away. By the time he gets there, though, it’s too late; Marsden’s been murdered. Because he was found with Marsden’s body, and had a friendship with him, Zelic becomes a ‘person of interest.’ Partly to clear his name, he starts asking questions. One part of the trail leads to a USB drive with some important information on it. But some of the drive is corrupted, so Zelic and Reynolds look for help in getting what they need from it. For that, they rely on sixteen-year-old Sammi Ng, whose ‘office’ is a table in a coffee shop. She’s an expert at getting anything from any computer, and she soon gets what’s on the USB. It means that she skips some school, but she has her priorities.

Even if you’re not overly interested in computers, it’s hard to deny the value of someone who can make a computer do what you want it to do, especially when that computer isn’t working. If you’ve ever waited impatiently for the computer repair shop to call you back, you know what I mean. And techno-whizzes are just as helpful in crime-fictional cases. These are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of lots more than I could.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Bourne and Michael Raphael’s Slacker.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

8 thoughts on “My Friend’s a Computer Hacker*

  1. Margot: Your post is timely since I just finished reading Fair Warning by Michael Connelly. In the book I learned of the minimal oversight of DNA information provided to companies through heritage searching. And the villains have found ways through hacking to particularize information. It is uncomfortable, even frightening.

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    1. It is, at the very least, unsettling, Bill. And it has profound implications that should scare us all. I’m not surprised Connelly addresses that in his novel. As if the reality of data hacking (like ID numbers, addresses, etc.) wasn’t enough…

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  2. Ha! Given how long it took me merely to access my own information after the laptop change this week, I don’t think I’ll take up hacking as a career! The younger generation might be whizzes on computers but I bet they’d be baffled by how to rewind a VHS tape that had got twisted… each generation has its own skills… 😉

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    1. Haha! I don’t think I’ll take up hacking any time soon, either, FictionFan! I’m glad you got your laptop sorted, though. I suppose you’re right about each generation being different about technology. I doubt my nine-year-old granddaughter would be a champ at using a pencil to fix a cassette tape, or a coin on a stereo needle… 😉 – Still, I’m always in awe of people who can use a few keystrokes or commands to do things. It’s an enviable skills.

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  3. I like the idea, in the comments, of old-fashioned skills that will be forgotten. In a murder story set in a radio studio, and written 40 years ago, the presence of a razor blade is relevant. It was essential kit for editing tape, and of course completely unnecessary in our digital age. A criminal will have to find another weapon – computer editing software wont’ work, no matter how clever the user!

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    1. Ha! No, it won’t, Moira! There are some things we’ve had to give up in the digital age, and that’s one of them. And your example of the razor blade is a good one that shows how different things were, even just a few decades ago, when it comes to technology.

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  4. I do like pre-tech books in a lot of instances. There is though one of the shorter John Bachelor novellas from Mick Herron where some tech savvy types manage to implant some material onto a computer which causes real problems for the user. I suppose I’m happy with either as long as the story is good.

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    1. I think that’s the key point, too, Col – does it all serve the story. If not, then it’s definitely possible to too much, or the wrong, sort of focus on technology. If it does, it can be engaging. Thanks for mentioning Herron; I’ve read and liked some of his work, but not his short stories/novellas. I ought to try them.

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