More dead bodies, please
Mystery writers fail to exploit Silicon Valley potential
What's wrong with Silicon Valley as a setting for a mystery?
Everything from TV's "Law and Order" to Mickey Spillane's pulp fiction plays out on the mean streets of New York. George Simenon made Paris a hotbed of fictional homicide, a tradition followed today in Cara Black's Aimée Leduc mysteries and Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code."
Since Raymond Chandler put pen to paper, Los Angeles has garnered more than its fair share of fictional crime-solving. And a half-hour drive north of the Valley, San Francisco has been the setting for the very best of the mystery genre since the 1930 publication of "The Maltese Falcon" and the subsequent movie version that made Humphrey Bogart a star.
Hey, you writers of crime fiction! What about Silicon Valley?
Commute traffic these days flows from San Francisco to the Valley, not the other way around. A feud among board members of a Palo Alto computer giant begets corporate espionage. Soaring stock prices engender financial shenanigans such as the backdating of stock options. The high value attached to small devices leads to warehouse robberies by armed gangs. The engine that drives the Valley is fueled in no small part by greed, envy and gluttony — to name only three of the Deadly Sins.
And yet, on a recent list of the 10 best-selling mysteries and thrillers, four are set in New York, two in Paris, and one in L.A. Isn't it time for a change?
With the perfect ingredients for a mystery just lying here, why do so many authors persist in setting their mysteries in the old standbys, while next to none take advantage of the seething turmoil of the Valley?
Technology as the background for a compelling story can lead to bestsellerdom as Joseph Finder and Michael Crichton have proven. If Silicon Valley is the center of world technology, why is it not the hub of high-tech mysteries and thrillers? Of course, behind the Valley's high-tech image lurks very human motives and emotions — the Valley's position at the center of world technology is based in no small part on disloyalty and betrayal. If young technologists could not break away from companies run by an older generation of entrepreneurs to start up their own firms, Silicon Valley would still be known as the Valley of Heart's Delight and covered by orchards rather than tilt-up buildings.
The neglect of the Valley as a setting cannot be that business is the wrong background for a mystery. The Enron trial played out in compelling drama on the nation's finance pages. Financial meltdowns are all too familiar to Valley denizens. Using the dot-com implosion as background could give a mystery writer a chance to show the mighty made humble — always a popular theme — or show how a fallen icon can rise again — an equally popular storyline.
Sure, we in the Valley are not quite so cocky as we were in 1999, but mystery writers have shown themselves to be more than adept in setting books among dissolution and decline.
Everyone knows sex sells, and I don't think that sex — whether premarital, marital or extramarital — is a missing ingredient in Valley life. It is true that, in pursuit of an IPO, sex drives may be sublimated and the opposite sex neglected. But when the programmer looks up from his PC, when the biotech researcher looks up from her microscope, birds and bees can take wing.
Writers have an opportunity to buy into Silicon Valley as a setting for their crime fiction now, well before it is overrun by fictional detectives like New York, Paris, L.A., or San Francisco. The drive to succeed and the billions at stake can fuel murderous fires.
I, for one, believe it's time for mystery and thriller writers to start setting their books in this world of money, technology and, of course, insane real estate prices. Maybe the process has started already with Mark Coggins' Augustus Riordan series and "Hooked" by Matt Richtel, but maybe not — the action even in these books centers more around San Francisco than the Valley.
So just how long will we have to wait until the fictional body count in the world's technology capital climbs to the levels reached by the world capitals of finance and culture? Perhaps until mystery writers bite the bullet and dare to be as innovative as the entrepreneurs who've given the Valley its fame.
Keith Raffel is the author of "Dot Dead: A Silicon Valley Mystery" published last year. He founded the software company Upshot Corporation, later purchased by Siebel Systems.