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Science & Technology

Tech Plays Role As The Weapon Of Choice In Crime Fiction

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For writers of crime fiction, those vulnerabilities in the Internet of things present an opportunity. NPR's Art Silverman realized that when he picked up some of the new books coming into our office.

ART SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Each week, I produce this All Tech Considered segment. It's a lot of work to keep up with the tech world, so when the day's over, I look for an escape. I grab a good book, even a bad book. As long as it's a crime fiction, I'm happy.

But lately, I can't escape. That's because writers are putting technology into their plots. Why should murderers use a gun when they can tamper with a toaster, fiddle with a freezer or pose a threat to a thermometer?

JEFFERY DEAVER: My job really is to scare the socks off my readers.

SILVERMAN: That's Jeffery Deaver. His detective story "The Steel Kiss" came out this year. In it, his villain, a man named Vernon Griffith, runs around New York City doing dirty digital deeds like hacking into the controls of an escalator.

Unlike pulling a trigger, which most of us understand, hacking home appliances is a bit complicated, so Deaver occasionally has to stop mid-story to explain to readers what's up. He does that in the voice of the nerd helping the detectives.

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DEAVER: (Reading) OK, you want to know about the Internet of things. OK, smart products from household lights all the way up to the dangerous ones our boy is using are embedded with wireless connectivity circuits.

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SILVERMAN: Despite all these modern-day complications, Deaver says he's still abiding by a rule he set for himself 40 books ago - frighten readers by using the things they deal with every day.

DEAVER: The high-tech elements of the book are really no different from traditional police work, a car chase scene. It simply is another tool of storytelling for me.

SILVERMAN: And those tools do the job. I got chills when the bad guy spooks a young couple by hacking into their baby monitor in "The Steel Kiss."

DEAVER: They hear a voice and saying, hi, Honey, how are you doing? Do you want to come live with somebody else? And of course this is on the baby monitor. And the woman drops her phone, races to the door. And it turns out the villain had hacked in as an act of revenge to make the parents feel uncomfortable.

SILVERMAN: That scene really hit home. I've listened through a baby monitor to my grandchild sleeping. All this hacking of the Internet of things in these novels is not over yet. Folks at a website called crimefictionlover.com told me that next summer, be ready for "Flashmob" by Christopher Farnsworth and "The Dark Net" by Benjamin Percy.

Most crime writers are new to technology, so they have to research everything carefully. But some come from the tech world. Author William Hertling worked for 20 years as a software engineer and was a big reader.

WILLIAM HERTLING: I always loved reading spy thrillers. And of course the spy thrillers of the '80s had a particular set of technology that they worked with. And today, though - right? - what we have to do with computers is completely different. It's a whole other type of game, but it's the same kind of cat-and-mouse game.

SILVERMAN: He says that old spy game was played with miniature cameras and microphones. It's just the tools that have changed. His latest book is "Kill Process." A tech expert named Angie uses her skills to exploit smart home devices. She wants to kill men she thinks are abusing their spouses. Here Hertling reads a typical scene.

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HERTLING: (Reading) I go after the furnace, a smart device like every appliance built in last five years. The furnace doesn't possess any protection at all besides the original factory password shared on countless...

SILVERMAN: Hertling takes us step by step as Angie penetrates the system. No need for breaking and entering - just jump over digital hurdles, and Angie is all set to kill.

HERTLING: (Reading) And now the furnace generates copious quantities of carbon monoxide as it also runs the ventilation fans backwards with the cleaning duct open. These three things should never ever happen at the same time, but they are now.

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SILVERMAN: A furnace as a weapon - I had to ask William Hertling how much he thought any of this stuff was even possible.

HERTLING: I kind of call it science fiction because I think of myself as a science fiction author. And it wasn't till I finished the book and I thought, well, can I even call this science fiction?

SILVERMAN: Well, that's a great thing. Now I have absolutely nowhere to go to escape from technology, not even in crime fiction.

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SHAPIRO: NPR's Art Silverman - he produces All Tech Considered. The authors he spoke with are William Hertling of "Kill Process" and Jeffery Deaver of "The Steel Kiss." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.