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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Hazards of Research -- The Mystery Edition

It’s a story that went viral in only a few hours — a woman innocently uses Google to search for “pressure cooker” followed on the same computer by her husband who innocently uses Google to search for “backpack” followed by their son innocently using Google to reach for information about the Boston bombing . . . followed by a not-so-innocent visit from some well-armed gentlemen bearing pointed questions.

It sounds like the inciting incident for a mystery novel. But it really happened. Sort of.  As did the story of the novelist who wrote a blog called How To Murder Your Husband and who was indicted last year on charges of — you guessed it — murdering her husband. She is currently being held without bail as she awaits criminal trial—she is also facing a multi-million-dollar civil lawsuit filed by her stepson. I am virtually certain that part of her defense will be asking what kind of idiot would write such a thing and then actually do it.

As a crime writer, I tend to look at the news as idea fodder, fuel for the creative engine. These stories hit several particularly interesting subjects — Internet privacy, free speech, the broad powers of the NSA, the ethical and moral and civil rights issues of being spied upon by a faceless bureaucrat armed with equally faceless tracking programs.

I tell my friends and family that if I’m ever accused of a crime — any crime — I’m sure to be convicted once prosecutors share my search history. In real life, I’m a rather average person, as bland as a picket fence. Online, however, I’m a schemer, a wacko, a homicidal manic searching relentlessly for the perfect way to murder — holy cow, like, a dozen people — in ways both mundane and extraordinary. And then hide all evidence of the crime. Or blame it on some innocent. Or skip town entirely and set up shop in Belize under an assumed name.

I mean, I’m a member of a blogging group called Writers Who Kill. What evidence could be more damning?

Should writers who research the dark side worry about that official tapping at the door? Only as much as any other citizen. In the meantime, I’m using Duck Duck Go as my search engine — they make it a point not to collect or track information from their users. You can learn more about them (including their reasoning behind their decision to offer anonymous searches) at their website —

So, just between us, what does your search history look like? What are you researching now that would make you look nefarious if you were ever on trial?
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Tina Whittle writes the Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver mysteries. The sixth book in this Atlanta-based series—Necessary Ends—is available now. Tina is a proud member of Sisters in Crime and has served as both a chapter officer and national board member. Visit her website to follow her on social media, sign up for her newsletter, or read additional scenes and short stories:


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Plenty of inspiration in the headlines and agony auntie columns, which I adore. Dear Prudie and Carolyn Hax.

Esoteric poisons and exotic medical mysteries, especially if the former causes the latter.

Kait said...

I remember Duck Duck Go! I used to use them, I forget why I stopped. Didn't play well with something or other. Guilty as charged on the search history - poisons, bombs, weapons, kidnapping techniques, hand to hand combat - you name it, I've done it - Online. Since my day job is Paralegal I have a number of retired criminal attorneys who give me even more juicy ideas. I remember when I told one I was a writer his words, "Call me, I love to talk about crime and how to do it." He paused for a beat. "That didn't sound so good, did it." I laughed.

KM Rockwood said...

Maybe we should start doing our research at the public library's computers?

But no, they record your library card number, and they could easily hook up times and people.

Would they do that? I haven't heard anything about that for a long time--back in the day, I worked for a university library that deliberately used a system that erased the records of who borrowed what, so that even if they were served with a subpoena, they couldn't respond to it readily.

Jim Jackson said...

One should assume you have zero online privacy and browse/post accordingly. Not only does my search history include looking at ways people can die, it also includes ways to hide one's identity. Because Seamus McCree needs to keep up with the latest on the world of financial crime, I have a ton of searches on that subject.