Saturday, 17 August 2019

Tom Ripley, Campari and how technology can ruin a good plot by Tracy Darnton

Tom Ripley and I got reacquainted on a sun lounger in Italy this summer. Patricia Highsmith’s book written and set in the 1950s describes a time when an affluent American could decamp to beautiful villas in Italy for the price of a waffle and soda back in the U.S. and swan around collecting antiques and bohemian artist friends. And, *major spoiler alert*, Tom Ripley can pass himself off as the American he murders on the basis of a slight resemblance to a grainy passport photo.

I got to thinking over a Campari and a bowl of olives about how this could be made to work in the present day. Answer – it couldn’t. A five second look at Facebook and Instagram would have shown the Italian police exactly what Dickie Greenleaf looked like. His bank card would reveal what he’d spent and where. And mobile telephones would ruin the way Tom evades Greenleaf’s friends and family.

I should add that one of my sons kindly provided some impromptu research on how Ripley could exist in modern Italy by managing to break his phone, not remember our mobile numbers, have his wallet and bank card pickpocketed in Rome and still blag his way to the North of Italy with seven Euros and a half-remembered B&B name for our rendezvous. But somehow it didn’t seem very realistic. Too far-fetched to put in a book.

I’m currently editing my next novel – a contemporary psychological YA thriller – and, like my last one, I have to grapple with the omnipresence of tech and social media in the world in which my young characters live.

Thriller writers are already battling the annoying realities of forensics and police investigations. As a YA writer, I want my 17-year-old main character to have agency so must also side-line any pesky adults in positions of authority. The list of things to tackle and exclude is long and growing.

Short of setting everything back in the day of a temperamental telephone with a cord that could be cut, or in the middle of the ocean, I’m forced to tread a fine line between reality and plot to make the latter believable and current. All this needs to be achieved in a subtle and original way as we’ve all read books where we can too easily spot the moment that the author gets rid of the mobile phone to keep the plot going. 
As I gazed out of many train windows in Northern Italy visiting places like Trento and Bolzano half-hoping for a glimpse of Tom Ripley, I pondered another classic: Murder on the Orient Express. Poirot would be able to use the train Wi-Fi to check up on his carriage full of suspects and spot the link between them all. Since batteries have a longer life or a portable power bank to keep them running even longer, a mobile phone out of charge now seems hopelessly unrealistic, especially as even the train has charging points.

It’s not just the curse of the smart phone, all those plots involving actual letters would have to go as no one writes letters anymore. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles where Tess’s letter to Angel gets caught under the doormat with disastrous consequences.  

Or the use of traffic cameras in The Great Gatsby would have shown exactly who was driving the car that killed Myrtle.

Books where characters get lost would be ruined by Google Maps,  and ditto for plots where people go missing and could be easily found by a track my phone App.  

Any dodgy hotels would be ruled out by a quick flick through TripAdvisor. Marion would never stay at the Bates Motel in Psycho. No one would move to 112 Ocean Avenue after a brief look at Zoopla’s neighbourhood guide and thus avoid The Amityville Horror.

But, surrounded by kids on trains watching cartoons or adults taking endless selfies of themselves, I was struck more than previous years about the need for all of us to unplug from our phones for a while. And when I read a book – the ultimate unplugging experience – I want to get away from all that. I don’t want Google or Facebook or Apps intruding on the story. I need a plot given time to evolve and breathe. 
I still hope for random meetings of strangers, letters written in ink, puzzles to work out for myself – and teenage kids to find their parents come what may. 

And I want characters like Tom Ripley to be reading newspapers and sipping cocktails in the sunshine, unplugged.

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies, shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019. She has an MA in Writing for Young People.

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton and on Instagram tracydarnton


Penny Dolan said...

Loved this. Tracy. Glad you can still laze and dream.

There are still areas of the world where wi-fi reception is poor or limited, eg Death Valley in California. Note the name. Just saying.

Susan Price said...

Enjoyed the post - and yes, technology ruins all those classic plots, but it provides new ones. I recently wrote a thriller involving scams and murder and my villainess found technology helpful at almost every turn. Mr Ripley today would simply swop to seducing the rich and guillable via internet dating sites.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Well said, Tracy! Would it surprise you to know people were considering this sort of thing years ago? In a novel by Mack Reynolds, written in the 1970s but set in the future, the hero is having trouble keeping his tracks hidden because everyone uses credit cards instead of cash - cash is gone. That sounds pretty up to date, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, a more recent YA novel I read had the main character looking up in a dusty library some information easily available, at the time, on a quick Google search.

Poirot had a tendency to send telegrams, the equivalent of today’s emails and online searches, but it’s possible that snowed-in as the train was, in the middle of nowhere, it might not have internet access, or why ask Poirot anyway, when you could just call in the police?

Moira Butterfield said...

Great post! I find when reading contemporary crime that authors often use technology to make things too easy. The crime-solver has a handy all-powerful geek (usually a stereotyped bloke who eats loads of junk food and lives in a sort of cave-room full of equipment). They can provide anything needed super-quickly, thus smoothing the way. Modern Ripley could have those semi-magical tec whizz powers to cover his tracks.

Tracy Darnton said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. Yes, Patricia Highsmith was no doubt cursing having to deal with the telephone and very modern travellers cheques and the fact that the stamps in the passport would give away whether he'd left the ports or not. Though I think I prefer that to having to outwit an eGate...
And Moira - I need an all-powerful geek in my own life please.