You Wouldn’t Believe What’s Out There…


It has been stated  repeatedly that information is the new currency. Mystery and thriller authors and readers have known that for decades. What is a clue, if not a piece of information? What is new is the ability of anyone — and I mean anyone — with internet access and a bit of deductive reasoning to discover quite a bit about someone else, without paying a private investigator to do so or getting down and dirty themselves and going through someone’s garbage the night before the scheduled pickup. I’m not talking about one of those pricey subscription services, either. I’m talking about what you can get from the comfort of your home with a smartphone or a tablet. Those of us of a certain age are familiar with the gumshoe — Mike Hammer comes to mind —who had a contact at the courthouse, or the phone company, who is an inside source of inside knowledge. These days it just takes a few keystrokes.

If you are writing contemporary detective fiction your protagonist can use these sources quite easily. So can you, for that matter, for your own benevolent reasons. The following are the most widely and readily available:

Google Search: This may seem obvious, but it’s just a starting point. It doesn’t contain everything, by any means, and may also give you too much information. If I can’t find precisely what I am looking within the first two or three pages of search results I look elsewhere, such as

Facebook: It may seem trite but Facebook can be a wealth of information. I have seen couples who I know play out their domestic problems in Facebook posts. Ouch. On another occasion, I was considering an extended period service contract with a gentleman — payment up front — until I read some of his wife’s posts, in which she repeatedly described the financial problems her husband’s business was experiencing. It did not instill confidence, nor did her demonstration of her inability to operate the governor between her thoughts and her fingers. I went elsewhere.

While we are talking about Facebook: it’s a criminal’s dream (so is Twitter), particularly with respect to those folks who can’t travel more than five miles from home, eat anywhere besides McDonald’s, or use the commode without telling the Universe where they are, like, RIGHT NOW, and what they are doing. Some unsolicited advice: wait until you get home to spread the news about how interesting you are. Otherwise, you are advertising that your home is empty and waiting to be burglarized while you are busily telling the world that you are engaging in conspicuous consumption.  Ask your local police department (or better yet, your insurance agent) if you think that I am kidding. Much of what is available online is put there by government agencies, and you can’t opt out. It’s there. Keep in mind that what you voluntarily put on Facebook can be viewed by anyone, be it your spouse or significant other (or both!), and a prospective or current employer, customer, or client.

County auditor/assessor office websites: this would be the office that collects your real property tax. While I have come across a couple who charge a fee for access — particularly in California — the overwhelming majority of the ones that I have accessed are free. It is a great way to get an up-to-date address for someone. If someone owns several pieces of property in a county, check to see where the tax bill is sent. That is almost certainly where they actually live.

City, county, and probate clerk of courts websites: Do a name search on these sites to see if your person of interest is sued or being sued, has had criminal charges brought against them, has a lead foot when driving, has a history of divorce, has taken out a marriage license, or has warrants or civil judgements outstanding against them. You don’t need to be an attorney to search most of these sites, and most are free. Some jurisdictions do charge a fee and/or limit access to attorneys — again, California — and some don’t have online access at all but that number is dwindling.

Cell phone records: Not everyone is aware of it, but you can access your own cell phone records — or the records of family members who are on your family plan — online once you setup your account. This ability is not without benefits. Several years ago my younger son had his cell phone stolen by a customer from the restaurant where he was working (long story). He called and told me fifteen minutes after it happened. I logged on and discovered that the perp was already calling people. I started calling the same numbers, telling them to call their friend back and tell him that he had thirty minutes to return the phone or I would hunt him down like a dog (yes, I could have called the thief directly but doing it this way seemed more sinister). The phone was returned within a few minutes. Now, of course, one had an app for such things but not everyone loads it or knows how to do so.

As for what is NOT out there: I have yet to find a good online directory for cell phone numbers in general or reverse directories. I recently attempted to find a friend that I had been out of touch with for over forty years. He didn’t have much of an internet presence so I wound up checking the real property tax records in the county where he had lived when I knew him. He was still there. I tried to get phone numbers for him online and got four — four — all of which were outdated or no longer valid. I wound up mailing him a letter and heard back from him. Sometimes, I combination of old and new works best, as Loren Estleman demonstrates on an annual basis in his immortal Amos Walker series.

Does anyone else have other websites they know of, that detectives, fictional or otherwise, can use? And, better yet, does anyone have interesting stories resulting from their use of such websites?

Coming to Your Smartphone: Books That Are Unprintable

printing press

I grew up reading. Comic books, paperbacks, hardcovers (each of the original Hardy Boys series was in hardcover, way back when)…I devoured them all. If you get a great author with a terrific story you really don’t need anything else. I occasionally, however, like something different if it’s nicely done. I’m not sure if anyone remembers the Griffin & Sabine trilogy by Nick Bantock with all of its removable notes and letters and envelopes and the like, but I surely enjoyed that. I also liked a couple of the “choose your ending” books that were published several years ago and still are, even though they are aimed at a somewhat different age group. Then came ebooks, which are great. Nothing, however, seems to beat a traditional book. That isn’t going to stop folks from making modifications, however.

The next big leap appears to already be here, and combines phone applications with original literary works specifically written for the medium, utilizing video, Google Street View, photographs, music and the like. The result is a book which cannot be printed but which can be accessed by an e-reader, smartphone, or laptop.

One of the players in this medium is a company named Editions at Play. The books in question are specifically designed to be read on a tablet or phone, and contain features integral to the story that mitigate against their being printed. They are phone and tablet applications, designed to be used on…well, phones and tablets. Newer phones and tablets, that is. If you have a new smartphone you won’t have a problem, but if you’re still hanging on the that five year old Android you might be limited to your laptop screen in reading these. That aside, you can find samples of two appbooks from Editions at Play — The  Truth About Cats & Dogs by Sam Riviere and Joe Dunthorne, and Entrances & Exits by Reif Larsen — at the link above, and from the looks of things, more are on the way. Editions at Play isn’t the only company investing in this. There are a number of others, including what appears to be an author-collaborative effort from Penguin Random House that will be published (is that still the right word?) later this year.

I of course could not resist. I went to the website link above and looked at the books presently for sale, sampled them, and laid down three bucks and change for each of them. I haven’t gotten to The Truth About Cats & Dogs yet but I did play wi…er, read, Entrances & Exits, which is a bit of a romantic tale, wherein it appears that a man’s wife has run off with their neighbor. The cuckold takes to wandering, going out of his comfort zone a bit further and further with each excursion. The book uses Google Street View quite heavily (the project is heavily tied in with google) and while neither the subject matter nor the writing is especially weighty, the overall experience is entertaining. Call it a couple of steps up from an illustrated novel/short story.

Will the appbook replace the printed book? No. No. And no again. Even the publisher acknowledges that. There is certainly a place for them, however, particularly, I believe, in the tween and young adult market, which has already begun to pick up the concept and run with it. One could incorporate videos, music, alternate endings, open endings, write your own ending, online contests…where would it end? That would be up to the creator(s). And you might be able to do it yourself. My nine year-old granddaughter tells me that hey, it’s really not all that difficult to write programming code.

What do you think of this? As a reader or as an author or both? Does this interest you, or does it look like a gimmick? Not that there’s anything wrong with a gimmick.






What Scares YOU?!


Photo (c) Copyright 2015, New Media Investment Group.

It is almost Halloween. The Just Born Candy Company (the fine folks who bring us Marshmellow Peeps!) have Ghost, Tombstone, and Pumpkin Peeps (as well as some pricey limited edition flavors) out right now. They don’t have Spider Peeps. I consider that to be a good thing, for the reason set forth below.

Long time TKZ visitors will recall that I have blogged on the topic of fear and what scares you and me. Given that we are approaching Halloween, I thought that we might visit it once again, giving our more recent visitors a chance to weigh in as well. Fear is a great inspiration for writing. Take what you fear most and write about it, spinning the topic out to its worst case scenario. I have three major fears: 1) spiders, 2) spiders, and 3) spiders. I apparently have some notoriety in this regard as, when one does a image google of me, a couple of pictures of spiders appear within the montage of America’s Most Wanted posters. How nice. I also don’t care much for heights or closed-in places. Put me in a spider-filled coffin suspended fifty feet in the air and you might as well kill me. In fact, if I’m ever in that position, please do. I spray the interior and exterior of my house twice a year with an insecticide called Suspend (and a tip of the fedora to Carl Causey, husband of author Toni McGee Causey, for that suggestion!) but, as this article in the Friday morning news demonstrates, the spiders in my house and their homeslices have merely withdrawn and are regrouping on a bridge in Columbus, five to ten thousand strong, planning a flank attack even as I type. I’m waiting for you, demon spawns, with a sprayer full of Suspend and cleated boots and a twelve-gauge shotgun. I don’t care what the guy in the video in the article says, about how interesting they are, or how their fangs aren’t sharp enough to pierce the skin of a human being. Is he nucking futs? He’s gonna let one of those things get close enough to you to determine whether or not its fangs will break your skin? Not me.

There was a time during the past year when I was driving over that bridge twice a night, every night. No more. The current occupants are probably busily weaving the largest web you’ve ever seen, even as they chitter, “{{{wherrrzzz Joezzzz?}}},” ready to drop it on me as I drive by. It won’t happen. Obviously, I won’t be traversing that route until the temperature is somewhere south of zero and they are all curled up in a glare of ice. And those folks who are walking on the bridge to get a peek at what five thousand spiders — at least — look like? Unbelievable!

So what scares the living daylights out of you? Have you written about the topic of your (ir)rational fear? Do you plan to?