Today’s technology has made it very difficult to keep things very secret for long. Pictures and videos can be uploaded instantly, and once the proverbial genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be undone. We’ve all heard of ‘revenge porn’ and other examples of how this can happen. I got to thinking about this because of a novel I’m currently reading. In it, a terrible crime is committed, and a video of it is uploaded and then spread around. The novel is, among other things, about the impact of the crime, and the culture in which it’s committed. One wonders how the story might turn out if the crime hadn’t been recorded and shared.
It hasn’t always been that easy to share secrets. But even so, a look at classic and Golden Age crime fiction shows that people were still afraid it might happen, and with good reason. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the King of Bohemia visits Sherlock Holmes to ask for his help. It seems the king is to be married, but his plans are in jeopardy. An old lover, Irene Adler, has a compromising photograph of them, and has threatened to make it public. The king wants Holmes to find Miss Adler and get the photograph from her. Holmes agrees to take the case, but he soon finds that his quarry is more than a match for him. And it shows just how seriously people took the possibility that a letter or a photograph might get into the wrong hands.
Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) tells the story of the murder of Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who did business as Madame Giselle. When she is murdered during a flight from Paris to London, it looks at first as though she died from an allergic reaction a wasp sting. But soon enough, it’s proven that she was poisoned. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, and more than one of them could have had a motive. As it turns out, Madame Giselle kept interesting ‘collateral’ on her clients. She collected compromising information (letters, photographs, and so on) about each person who came to her. If that person paid back the loan according to the terms, then she would keep the information secret. If not, she would reveal it. And there are some people whose lives might very well be ruined if their secret information came out.
Stuart Kaminsky’s Bullet For a Star is the first of his Toby Peters novels, which take place in 1940’s Hollywood. Peters used to work as a security guard at Warner Brothers Studio, but was fired. Now, he’s a private investigator. In this story, he is approached by producer Sid Adelman, who wants his help with a difficult situation. It seems that famous star Errol Flynn is being blackmailed. Apparently, someone has a photograph of Flynn with a very young girl, and is threatening to go public with is. Adelman isn’t sure if the photograph is real or not, but he doesn’t want to risk such a bankable star. So, he’s decided to pay the blackmailer. He wants Peters to deliver the money and pick up the photograph and the negatives – that’s all. It’s supposed to be a very straightforward case. That’s not how it turns out, though. As Peters and the blackmailer meet, someone knocks him unconscious, steals his gun and shoots the blackmailer with it. The photograph and negatives are gone, too. If he’s going to clear his name and find the incriminating photograph, Peters will have to track down the person who committed the crime.
These days, of course, it’s quite easy to make a video or photograph public in seconds, and it takes only a few minutes for thousands or more people to see the upload. In Herman Koch’s The Dinner, for instance, Paul and Claire Lohman meet Paul’s brother Serge, and Serge’s wife Babette, for dinner. They’ve chosen an ultra-exclusive Amsterdam restaurant – the kind where it takes months to get a reservation. This isn’t just a casual get-together, though. As the story goes on, we learn that the two couples have something important to discuss. Paul and Claire’s fifteen-year-old son Michel, and Serge and Babette’s fifteen-year-old son Rick, are guilty of a terrible crime. Their parents are meeting to decide what to do about. One of the complications they will have to deal with is that the crime was recorded and uploaded. And now that it’s on the Internet, it’s impossible to completely erase it. As the story unfolds, one plot thread follows the background to the crime, the event itself, and its impact on the two families.
And then there’s Donna Malane’s My Brother’s Keeper, the second of her novels featuring missing person expert Diane Rowe. In the story, Karen Mackie hires Diane to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny. It’s going to be a complicated case, though. Karen has recently been released from prison after serving time for attempting to kill Sunny, and for killing Sunny’s younger brother Falcon. So, Diane isn’t sure at all that Sunny’s going to want to see her mother. Still, she agrees to at least find out where the girl is. It doesn’t prove to be that difficult, and Sunny seems well. But soon enough, there’s trouble. Inappropriate pictures of Sunny have turned up on the computer at the gym her father owns, and her father is the most likely person to have taken them. What’s worse, Sunny’s friends have found out, and she’s quite the subject of discussion on social media. And as if that’s not complication enough, Karen is murdered. Now, Diane is deeply enmeshed in the lives of a dysfunctional family where nothing is as it seems.
It’s very easy for people’s private lives to end up on the Internet. And even before the days of social media, once a photograph of letter came out, it was hard to put the cork back in the bottle. Just a glance at crime fiction shows just what the consequences can be when that happens.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an instrumental song by Chris McIntyre.