More dead bodies, please | October 3, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- October 3, 2007

More dead bodies, please

Mystery writers fail to exploit Silicon Valley potential

by Keith Raffel

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.


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Posted by Mystery Reader
a resident of another community
on Oct 3, 2007 at 12:10 pm

I've noticed the lack of mysteries set in sili valley, too. I think a lot of it is because the landscape is physically boring & unromantic, compared to Napa, Marin, SF, Sonoma. While some of what goes on in the buildings may be interesting to mystery lovers at times, there'd have to be lifestyle, travel, romance, murder or some other requisite titillation.

There also seems to be, compared to other major metropolitan areas, a lack of interest from people here in unfurling mystery itself. People here are driven, busy, self-involved & their curiosity doesn't seem to be of the sleuthing type.

Of course, successful author Lora Smith is different, & there have been a few other local writers. But in truth, they don't compare to Denise Hamilton, of the Eve Diamond series, for example, set in LA, or Marcia Muller, of the Sharon McCone mysteries, set mostly in SF. But even to keep McCone interesting all these years, she's traveled well beyond SF.

It'd be great to see a local writer get details accurate, paint a thrilling picture of something nasty in sili valley and make a name for themselves.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 3, 2007 at 12:24 pm

Great idea.

I think Palo Alto has a great fictional bed of murder motivation, just look at the real life dramas of MI, and other hot topics.

Serioiusly though, I would love to read a crime series set here. One of my own personal favorites is the Sue Grafton A is for ... series which is set in familiar sounding turf not so far away from here.

Yes, Silicon valley could be a hot bed of intrigue.

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Posted by Mandy
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 3, 2007 at 12:46 pm

How about Palo Alto's own Keith Raffel and his recent mystery, dot.dead?

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Posted by What about it?
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 3, 2007 at 12:55 pm

Is it any good? Even if it is, one book doesn't make a trend, unfortunately.

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Posted by DotDead Is Good
a resident of another community
on Oct 10, 2007 at 1:16 pm

I got it out of the library. I enjoyed the character & plot development, the local scenes, too. It did have a bit of the now seemingly requisite Palo Alto smugness, w/out seeming to know it was smug. Oh, well, worth a read.