Malcolm Mackay on keeping up with criminals

13 July 2016

By Pan Macmillan

Malcolm Mackay, author of For Those Who Know the Ending, on the difficulty of keeping up with the latest in criminal technology. 

Technology now moves at such speed that only a slim window of opportunity is left for it to remain ‘current’. Just enough time for criminals to climb through that window, grab some money and run.

For the crime writer, strolling along in the criminal’s wake, cataloguing events and building stories, the window has already slammed shut. The idea, that not so long ago seemed inspiringly fresh, has already died; its decomposing corpse becoming a quirk of recent history.

The first time I saw a story about the tech people use to steal keyless cars was back in the autumn of 2014. Here was a new line of attack for car thieves, a dwindling element of organised crime that I’d written about in the past.

As motoring defences have improved it has become considerably harder to steal a vehicle safely and unseen, and the preferred method of breaking into a house to steal the car keys went against the low-risk, high-reward professionalism of my characters. It seemed that car security had locked out even the experienced criminal organisation of my books. Then technology created a new opportunity.

I started making notes about it, and put it on the backburner, ready to use when opportunity struck. The moment arrived, a few months ago, to work it into a story, a young character tasked with exploiting the tech to open a new revenue stream. Nothing is more important to them than money, so the pressure would be on.

It seemed, to me, an interesting story, but by that time, inevitably, the theft of keyless cars was no longer news. It had been widely reported, everyone who owned a keyless car knew about the threat and it was hard to picture anyone owning one and not having a wealth of extra security attached to it. Beaten by familiarity, it dropped from a sub plot to a passing mention, replaced with an app to read and duplicate the lock code of car keys.

The original idea doesn’t become entirely irrelevant, but it’s not the hot ticket you had in your hand on day one. Those apps aren’t new either, but unfortunately the time it takes to write a book is longer than technology will wait, so there’s almost nothing that’s truly fresh when the writer is done.

Perversely, as these things get better for society they get harder for writers. The window of relevance for many tech based scams is shortening now from months to weeks, either because they’re shut down or because awareness becomes so widespread that they can’t function effectively any more. Writing to be relevant, to be of the moment, is a dicey and difficult enough thing to do, and the pace of change in modern crime is making it harder still.

Malcolm Mackay's latest gripping portrait of gangland Glasgow, For Those Who Know the Ending, is out now. 



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For Those Who Know the Ending