Dead Zones, Cell Phones, and the Strange Perceptions of "Folks From Away"

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here. I have a new Liss MacCrimmon mystery coming out at the end of July. In fact, at the end of this post, you’ll see how you can win an advance reading copy even before that. But first, there’s this blog, the result of a pretty good review in Publisher’s Weekly that contained one very strange caveat. Here’s the entire review of Kilt at the Highland Games:

HIGHLANDGAMESCOVER“The Highland Games come to tiny Moosetookalook, Maine, in Dunnett’s enchanting 10th Liss MacCrimmon mystery (after 2015’s The Scottie Barked at Midnight). Despite the influx of trade and tourists, Liss still finds time to do some sleuthing, including finding the dead body of Jason Graye, Moosetookalook’s most despised town selectman and a shady realtor. Suspects abound, and the police are swamped between providing extra coverage for the games, searching for missing persons, investigating Graye’s murder, and looking into a break-in at the post office. Could all these events somehow be connected? Liss enlists the aid of a PI friend to get to the bottom of things, but it’s Liss who ends up facing off with a crazed killer, who’s ready to take out more victims. An implausible lack of cell phone usage undercuts credibility, but otherwise this is an enjoyable cozy from start to finish.”

The funny thing is, there are probably more references to using cell phones in this entry in the series than in most of the previous ones. Liss and Dan use a cell phone to call the chief of police’s cell phone to report the murder. Later, when Liss is rushing toward a dangerous situation, she uses her cell to contact both the police and Jake Murch, her friend the private investigator. You’d better believe she wants backup! There are also references to cell phones in use by a couple of teenagers, one of whom has a “stupid phone” rather than a smart phone because he’s saving every penny he earns for college. And the “missing person” referred to also uses a cell phone of the throwaway type, to avoid being found. I’m really not sure how much more cell phone usage there could have been, especially in rural Maine.

my personal "dead zone"

my personal “dead zone”

Why is rural Maine less likely to rely on cell phones than other places? Ever hear of a “dead zone” where you just can’t get a signal? We’re in one here at my house. No way are we ever going to be able to give up our land line. Cell service is iffy in many areas of Maine, some of them much closer to cities than we are.

hikerremainsI spent a few days earlier this month on Bailey Island, where I was warned not to rely on being able to get a signal. Hikers at this end of the Appalachian Trail receive a similar warning, and ignore it at their peril. Those who make the mistake of thinking they can call for help on a cell phone if they are injured or lost while out in the wilderness are in for a rude awakening. Hikers, climbers, and even skiers have learned this the hard way. A few end up losing their lives as a result of this miscalculation.

cell_phone_oldI do have a cell phone. Like one of those in the novel, it’s a “stupid phone” that has no bells and whistles. I keep it charged and carry it in my purse for emergencies. It costs me under $15 a month. It’s so old that it flips open and has an antenna. It would be no use at all if I needed help in a “dead zone” but when I got a flat tire on the Maine Turnpike on my way home from New England Crime Bake one year, I used it to call AAA and my husband.

As usual, I’m old fashioned and behind the times. Lots of Mainers do have cell phones and use them for all the things folks from away do—texting, checking social media, looking things up at IMDb. Sometimes they even use them to make or take phone calls. I see shoppers in the local Hannaford with phones to their ears, no doubt checking to see if there’s anything else they need to pick up for supper. I see a good many damn fools using cell phones while driving. But they are not everywhere, and not everybody owns one, or even wants one.


I’ve been rambling on the subject of cell phones for some 800 words now, and I don’t know if I’ve said anything particularly significant, but I’d love to hear what those of you reading this think of the whole issue of cell phones and, in particular, whether you would find a mystery novel less believable simply because there isn’t a lot of cell phone usage mentioned in it.

Leave your comment on this subject below and you will automatically be entered in a drawing to receive an advance reading copy of Kilt at the Highland Games. I’ll wait till the end of the month to draw a name, so if you’re reading this up to eight days after it’s posted, you still have a chance to win.


Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games ~ July 2016) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are and



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22 Responses to Dead Zones, Cell Phones, and the Strange Perceptions of "Folks From Away"

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    Goodness, I suspect I wouldn’t even notice if the characters in a mystery weren’t making use of their cell phones. I am at a loss to understand folks who are attached to their cell phones as if their lives depended on being connected. [I do have a cell phone, and I must admit that it is handy for calling for help when a tire goes flat on the parkway, but mostly I use it for keeping in touch with my daughters and my grandchildren.]


  2. Maureen says:

    Hello Kaitlyn, cell phone usage in the cozy mysteries is funny but ok to me. I especially like when the leading ladies in the stories, Liss for one, forget to charge their phones and then their loved ones cannot contact them, mostly in times of danger. Thanks for writing another Liss MacCrimmon mystery, Maureen


  3. Karen says:

    How annoying that a reviewer would not even think there is a reason for less cellphone usage in rural Maine than perhaps in NYC? I agree with you, that sounds like a fair amount of phone usage regardless of coverage issues. In my area of NH and VT (which is not as rural as the Appalacian Trail near you!!) cell coverage ranges from spotty to nonexistent, although my house is fortunate to be a pocket of coverage. People drive from all around to park near my house just to use their phones!! Looking forward to reading your new release.


  4. Gram says:

    We only have a cell for emergencies. It is kept charged and in the car. It only makes and takes phone calls, no texting, etc.


  5. Monica says:

    My mom died last year and I was back and forth to NY helping my dad. Each time I left Maine, I took with me the only cell phone and the only car we own. My husband doesn’t like being without a cell phone because of a medical condition so he bought another stupid phone for me.

    It spends most of its time turned off laying on a shelf. I don’t see the need to be constantly connected while shopping, walking, hanging out.

    Both phones cost us a total of $200/year. We still have a land line.

    For years we lived in a dead zone in Jericho, VT . Cars would be lined up at a pull off along Rt 15 so drivers could finish conversations. It’s not an unknown phenomenon.

    In mysteries I find it ‘unbelievable’ when the dead zone appears at just the wrong time especially if it’s not been mentioned before. Same is true of a suddenly dead battery. I find myself reading more and more mysteries from the pre cell phone era just to avoid the whole situation.

    But to actually say in a review that the story didn’t have enough cell phone usage is kind of weird. And in a few more years, like reading about someone’s Tandy computer, the omnipotent cell phone will date the story to a certain era.


  6. MCWriTers says:

    Cell phones don’t work at my cottage on Bailey Island. They don’t work in my house in Massachusetts. And there are plenty of places with dead zones in between. But it’s funny how dependent we’ve become on the little buggers. I left mine on the counter when I went to run errands the other day, and nearly panicked when I went to record a brilliant idea I’d had while driving–and there was NO phone in my purse. Going cold turkey (be nice to come up with a great name for this…like cold celling?) is fine. I’ve survived. But it’s pretty fascinating to realize how integral they’ve become.

    As for that reviewer? Seriously. People need to get out more. I don’t know how it is now, but it used to me when I’d drive up to Union to see my mother, I’d be in a roaming zone with extra charge to use my cell, or with no cell service at all. It really scared me when there’s talk of abandoning landlines because “everyone has a cell phone.” Phone ain’t much use without a signal.



  7. MCWriTers says:

    p.s. In his Longmire books, Craig Johnson has one of those places in a town where everyone parks because it’s the only place for miles where there’s a signal.



  8. Marilyn Lugner says:

    Part of Maine’s charm is its abundance of cell phone dead zones! (no, not really). People from away don’t seem to understand that dead zones are real here; perhaps they never will.


  9. Candy Kennedy says:

    I can’t imagine judging a book by cell phone usage but guess it shows how dependant many sre. I find lack of cell phones in stories believable.


  10. Skye says:

    Hi Kaitlyn, first of all your series sound delightful! I also love to hike and about cell phones…hmmmm…mine is just like yours. It’s archaic and only used for emergencies. I have many issues with cell phones, by the way. On one hand, I would love an Iphone or Smart Phone, but on the other hand, having taught at a university for 26 years, the last six years before I retired, I felt as if I were walking in a silent world amidst ‘bent heads.’ I like to think of it as the de-volution of mankind. Students and also friends no longer communicate verbally; they text and students did fail because they missed my lectures, and sigh, I really don’t feel like having lunch with a friend bent over her phone, either. Enough said.


  11. David Edgar Cournoyer says:

    There is a larger issue here about ill informed reviewers. Your example of someone not considering the unevenness of cell coverage and use is only one example. A reviewer for a national competition once criticized a work of mine because I had gulls dropping shellfish on rocks to break them. The reviewer claimed that wouldn’t work.


  12. Barb Ross says:

    Until we switched carriers, we laughlingly referred to my cell phone as “the paperweight” when we were at home in Boothbay Harbor, because that was all it was good for. That same carrier had spotty coverage in the canyons of Manhattan when I worked there in 2009. There are also suburban towns near me in Boston too snotty to have cell towers where the signal suddenly dies.

    Honestly, that reviewer needs to get out more.

    Fictional Morrow Island where my Maine Clambake Mysteries take place not only doesn’t have cell coverage, there are no landlines, either. All communication with the mainland is by radio. Plotwise, sometimes it’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s a pain in the neck, just as I suspect it would be in real life.


  13. Julianne Spreng says:

    We live in north-central Ohio between big and small urban areas. One would assume cell coverage would be great as towers are within view, but alas, our home is in a grey area where the signals don’t quite overlap. Dead Zone! If you hang out the second story window on the northeast side sometimes the signal comes in. But if a car drives by…blip, the signal cuts out. I have an old flip phone that I carry for emergencies. Except that it usually loses its charge before I need it and is totally useless when I do. There has been talk of doing away with landlines, but without them, we have no phone service. City dwellers need to get out more and experience the world as it really is.


  14. David Plimpton says:

    Kaitlyn, I think your book sounds very balanced on the cell phone world in its Maine setting. Perhaps the reviewer is relatively young, depends a lot on cell phones and other electronic devices, and is not from a rural area with its typical cell phone issues.

    Even making a dubious assumption younger readers might wish for more cell phone focus (many young people I know bemoan the downsides of cell phones and other electronic devices) , older readers will likely find your book believable on that score.

    My wife and I have an older cell phone which we use for the limited purposes you and some commenters have noted. Even so, we usually keep our cell phone off unless we may need to receive or make a call for the reason explored below.

    This brings me to one of the most unfortunate aspects of modern electronic communications (e-mail, social media, cell phones and their progeny). That is, technology has had the perhaps unexpected result of an expectation on the part of message senders for instant access to, and instant reply by, the recipient.

    Not to take anyone too far down memory lane, but when I started professional practice in 1966 in Portland, although we did get two mail deliveries a day, there were otherwise only hand delivery, telegrams and the land line telephone. Letters often said, “Please advise.”, which if you were smart you did by mail. On telephone calls, caller had to get through a receptionist and then a secretary, now known as a personal assistant, for those lucky enough to have one. Then faxes started, usually followed by a call: “Did you get my fax?” Then professionals often did not have their own secretaries anymore to protect them from message assault. Then there was the direct land line to the professional with an answering service, no busy signal like in the past, no receptionist/personal assistant interference to screen calls; then came the cell phone with the answering service, the e-mail and social media. Many professionals now list online six ways from Sunday to reach them. I know many professionals and business people understandably want to be accessible, but do they realize that in the modern world, there is likely to be an expectation of a response in a nanosecond.


    • Skye says:

      And David, weren’t those days simply wonderful? Kaitlyn, Sue Grafton’s A through Z novels features Kinsey Millhone and are set in the time frame just prior to use of PC’s and cell phones; it makes a wonderful read because as I read each book, I keep looking for Grafton to slip up in certain ways.


  15. Keeping up with technology is tricky when writing.

    It’s so integrated into the lives of readers that they expect the world to be like wherever they live, even if those of us who live in Maine often wind up hollering into the phone ARE YOU THERE? CAN YOU HEAR ME? quite a bit.

    My editor has pointed out places in my manuscript where it would be logical for someone to use a cell phone or send a text, jolting me to the reality that it’s far from second nature for me. It’s not like I have my characters running around looking for a phone booth and a dime, but I have to remember most people (a) carry a cell phone in their pocket (b) keep it on all the time and (c) answer it whenever it buzzes.

    My characters need to do that, even if I don’t always.


    • David Plimpton says:

      Agreed, Brenda. Joe Gale and other characters in your series seem appropriately modern in their communication resources and skills, even though I’m not the best judge of that.

      The technology trickiness of writing may subconsciously be part of the reason the book I’m writing is set in 1960.


  16. dragons3 says:

    Cell phones!! Just a few weeks ago someone in a pew behind me had his/her cell phone going off several times right in the middle of Mass. People are so reliant on them these days they can’t do anything without having theirs glued to their ear. I fully expect to read an article about a plastic surgeon finding a way to permanently graft one to someone’s hand. That said , I dropped my landline several years ago and rely on a cell only. However, I don’t walk around with it held against my ear all the time. Unless I know I’m going to be getting a call from someone, I leave it off and check my voicemail periodically. Sounds like your book has the right amount of cell usage. Can’t wait to read it!


  17. Such great comments! Thank you everyone for sharing your stories. I’ll be picking a winner for the ARC next week. Stay tuned!



  18. Kait Carson says:

    I have a cell phone, a smart one too–but if it relied on me for company the poor thing would die of neglect. I don’t understand the obsession with phones. I don’t text much, rarely call anyone on the cell, but I do carry it with me “just in case.”

    I lived in the crown of Maine when the smart phone revolution arrived. That probably explains a lot about my attitude. I remember once my phone rang at Oxbow on Route 11. I nearly drove off the road. Route 11 never had a signal until you got to Winterville and it was spotty until the the middle of Eagle Lake (the town, not the lake). The east side of my house in Wallagrass got a signal, but the west side, not at all. I rarely notice if cell phones appear in books. I’ll have to take more note now.


  19. Jane says:

    I’ve got a cell phone, but it is the dumb type. Not ready to give up my land line. Actually I’d rather keep in touch using the computer than a cell phone. I don’t know if I’d notice how much a cell phone versus a land line is used in a contemporary mystery. Love your books. Can’t wait to read this one!


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