I’ve been thinking about the past lately. I’ve been stuck in it in fact, having spent a year writing ‘Behind Dead Eyes’ for Penguin. I’ve come to the conclusion the past is a very foreign country indeed because so much of the technology used by most of us on a daily basis was unheard of even in the mid-nineties.
The main protagonists in ‘Behind Dead Eyes’ are Tom Carney and Helen Norton who are both investigative journalists. Since the book is set in 1995, my journalists do not enjoy the benefit of Google or the World Wide Web. They have to look things up the old way using books or the chunky, bound archives newspapers used to store their back issues. As someone who studied at college in the eighties and was a journalist in the nineties I can’t tell you how much I envy the information-at-your-fingertips world enjoyed by students and reporters in the modern era.
There was no e-mail in 1995 and text messages were years away. More shockingly, mobile phones were far from ubiquitous. These days it is not uncommon to see pre-teens with mobile phones. It is hard to explain that they were not considered an essential part of the job when I was a journalist. Mobile phones were expensive back then and famously-frugal local papers were not in the habit of gifting them to reporters. Huge stories are broken on social media minutes after they have happened these days but you had to wait patiently for your news at the time. This came in evening TV bulletins or by digesting your newspaper at the breakfast table the following morning, along with your cornflakes.
I had a mobile in 1990 for a pre-journalism job. It was the size of half a house brick. The battery was bigger than the main body of the phone and lasted about an hour. It had an antenna, which seemed to serve no discernible purpose and the signal was variable on a good day. You had no chance of even making a call if you were in the countryside or visiting vast swathes of the north. In my first book for Penguin, ‘No Name Lane’, Tom Carney has a mobile but it rarely worked properly and he doesn’t even bother with one in ‘Behind Dead Eyes’.
‘There was no telly in our day, just the wirelesss,’ my grandmother would tell me when I said I was bored by the three television channels available to me as a kid (I was a teenager when Channel 4 was launched and remember this being a very big deal indeed). I must confess to thinking she was clearly a bit ancient if she grew up without telly and still referred to radio as ‘the wireless’. Even in my forties, I am starting to sound a bit like her. Not only do I tell my daughter she has technology available that wasn’t invented when I was a kid, I am forced to admit most of it wasn’t even around in my thirties.
The other day my daughter went on a school trip and the teachers asked us to provide Erin with a fun camera. These were a wonderful thing in the nineties because you no longer had to risk losing or breaking an expensive camera in the pub during drunken birthday celebrations. We struggled to find a store that sold them anymore then had to show a ten-year-old how they worked. There was actual film in there, I explained, with a limit of 27 photos and she would have to wait for these to be developed. Erin gazed at this device as if I was showing her how to use a gramophone.
I now realise I am a fossil, a relic of a bygone era and I’m not even bloody old yet. Technically, I am probably still middle aged, though I’d have to live to 96 to prove the truth of that statement but, when I try to describe the world I grew up in, my daughter reacts in exactly the same way I used to when my elderly relatives talked of the wireless.
There is one distinct advantage of the lack of technology in the nineties though. It’s great for crime writers. If you are in trouble in my books, a quick call from a mobile won’t save you. If you have done something you shouldn’t, it is unlikely to be picked up on CCTV, which is ubiquitous these days but was rare and expensive back then. This is bad news for the police and victims in ‘Behind Dead Eyes’ but much simpler for an author trying to keep you interested in a disfigured corpse, a missing teenager and a convicted murderer who swears he is innocent but can’t prove it on his own. These days a quick look at CCTV footage, a routine checking of mobile phone records and a glance at Automatic Number Plate Recognition data would probably blow those cases wide open. My characters have to solve things the old fashioned way, using research, logic and their instincts, as well as their persuasive natures, to uncover what may or not be the truth. It might not be the most efficient way of solving a crime but it makes for much better storytelling. For that I suppose should be thankful I grew up as a luddite in a pre-internet age.
‘Behind’ Dead Eyes by Howard Linskey is published by Penguin on 19th May