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Sean Keating's painting from 1921

The first time I saw the above image I could swear the lad on the left was the earliest example of anyone using an iPhone in Ireland. More on that painting in a mo, but it’s a reminder of how ubiquitous mobile phones have become, and how mobiles and the Internet – or the lack of them – can date a story.

In crime fiction there’s a sharp dividing line between (a) the era before mobile phones, and (b) the modern age of the mobile internet. And the latter has its own subdivisions: when Pedro Almodóvar’s 2009 movie Broken Embraces jumps from the present (or at least the Noughties) to the 1980s, he uses brick-like mobile phones and slim flippable devices as visual clues about which decade we’re in.

Nowadays, as Stav Sherez puts it, “Mobile phones are as much a part of crime fiction as knives and guns.” But mobiles are not only part of it – they shape it very dramatically too. They don’t just date a story in the above sense: they can also have huge effects in terms of plot, action and dialogue.

For example, once your characters are communicating with each other remotely, at a distance, this can play hell with their dialogue, which loses out on an entire array of face-to-face signs and signals. Scenes in crime novels or films or plays or TV dramas set in the pre-mobile era also seem to involve a lot more shoe leather.

Think about it: all that physical knocking on doors and physically checking files of physical newspapers or microfiche films in the library, or looking for the nearest phone box – when much of the time nowadays this legwork (literally) is replaced by an instant text or phone call or web search. A quick tap and swipe on your 4G device and it’s all sorted.

On the other hand (and to state the bleeding obvious), like many other professions, once the private eye has a mobile phone, he or she becomes far more mobile too. No longer tied to a landline, he or she can jettison the office altogether, and many of the other fixtures and fittings of the 20th-century detective story: the secretary, the desk, the desk drawer with the equally clichéd bottle of whiskey hiding in it next to a firearm.

The mobile in itself has become a major plot device. It’s not only for one-to-one communication but also a way of tracking people, a status symbol, an alibi or a piece of damning evidence, an information store to be hacked, a handy camera or bugging device, a receiver of horrific pictures, a scary “NO SIGNAL” moment, or a “burner” phone that’s ditched when it becomes too risky, as in The Wire. 

Texts in film

Given the prominence not only of mobile phone calls but also of texts and emails in everyday life and modern fiction, is it any wonder that film-makers have had to find new ways to portray these messages on screen? Tony Zhou explains the problems and solutions superbly in “A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film”…

A closer look at the man with his "phone"

But back to that painting I mentioned at the start…

Look again.

Three men sitting in a dilapidated farmyard, one with his feet up reading the paper, another in his duffel coat staring into the distance, and the third apparently texting away on his mobile.

Now look more closely.

The third man is more likely to be cleaning his gun, because these men are on the run, and having a breather during Ireland’s War of Independence.

The painting itself is called “On the Run”. It’s by Seán Keating (1889-1977), from the revolutionary days of 1921.

Close up on the man's hands and the gun

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