Sunday, 24 March 2013

Enquiring Minds

I've been reading a lot of Mutant City Blues recently. It's a fun RPG setting; I particularly like the concept of the Quade Diagram, in which various kinds of mutation can be linked to other kinds, creating a chain by which certain powers can be deduced, and weaknesses too, based on the observed powers of the mutant in question. Fun stuff!

If I'm disappointed at all - and I'm not even sure that disappointed is the right word - it's that, for a game in which crimes are solved, relatively little emphasis is placed on the crime scene. I suppose you could argue that this is the difference between, say, an Agatha Christie novel and a CSI scenario. The television series CSI, particularly in its more recent incarnations, sacrifices detail to tell a story, whereas a crime drama in its classic incarnation is all about the detail. The very first Hercule Poirot novel, for example, turns entirely on a point about a document that may, or may not, exist. The reader is able to deduce whether or not it exists and, as a consequence, what happened, next, by paying attention to details, chief among which is the discovery of the crime scene. Christie even goes so far as to draw a map of the house in which the scene takes place, so her readers can follow along and make their own deductions.

CSI follows a completely different path. Television is a visual medium; the viewer isn't supposed to supply intelligent input. Certainly the viewer isn't supposed to work out whodunit. The whole point of a crime story as presented in this light is to entertain, for an hour or so, and then present a result that the viewer finds satisfactory. Or at least that the network finds satisfactory, which is why so many follow the CSI path and so few the Wire. But that's a story for another day.

If you will write, then you must read. Write what you know is the popular credo, but as so few people know the intricacies of murder it follows that, if you are to write crime, you need to read a hell of a lot. All manner of odd, forgotten authors become grist to your mill, which is why I have a copy of Burt Rapp's Homicide Investigation: A Practical Handbook.  I'm not about to pretend that Rapp is an unsung genius. Apart from anything else, he's as dated as hell; that book was written back in the 1980s, when DNA analysis - never mind the computerized databases that are meat and drink to CSI - was very much in its infancy. Which, incidentally, makes books like Rapp's invaluable to anyone writing a story set before DNA and the current television cop; ie. anything set before 1989. Many of us can only imagine what that world was like; Rapp knew. But that's by the way. 

There's a section on canvassing for information that I want to cover here, and Rapp's text is as follows:

Canvassing isn't a casual task to assign to anyone who happens to be available. Canvassing requires dedication, intelligence, motivation, and skill in dealing with people. The officers assigned to canvassing should have a clear idea of the information they should try to elicit. Basic information is as follows:
  • Name
  • Address
  • Telephone number
  • Work address and telephone
  • was person present during the crime?
  • did the person see or hear anything?
  • does the person know either the victim or the suspect?
  • names of any others at this address
  • names of any visitors during the period of the crime
  • convenient time for another interview, if necessary
  • witness' travel plans, for the foreseeable future 
I've been acting as Keeper in I don't care to guess for how many investigative games, for however long, and I can't recall any player asking any of those questions. Nor, for that matter, can I recall many of them taking notes.

It all seems so simple, when laid out as Rapp has it, in order. If you want to know what happened, then you ask who was there, you ask what they saw or heard, and you ask if there was anyone else on site who might have heard or seen anything. Hardly the stuff of revelation.

Or consider something from a different source:

Similarly, an Edinburgh surgeon in 1880 diagnosed a patient as a recently discharged sergeant from a regiment posted to Barbados; the man was respectful but forgetfully kept his hat on, as in the Army, he was Scottish with an air of authority, and he had elephantiasis, which you get in Barbados but not in the Highlands. Elementary, my dear Joseph Bell (1837-1911).  [The Alarming History of Medicine, Richard Gordon]

Investigation is, above all, the art of paying attention. In RPG terms, it starts in the very first scene, and does not stop until the scenario is over. Players should never take the information as presented entirely for granted; there is always something there to discover. Equally they should never neglect the basics. Who was there? What did they see, or hear? What is present at the scene, and what might account for it being there? Tunnel vision never does anyone any good, and to wed yourself to a theory of the crime without sufficient evidence is to invite disaster. It isn't all about progressing from scene to scene; sometimes it's about making sure you're on the right path, before making that deductive leap that transplants a Scot to the isle of the Bearded Ones. Just one or two questions can prevent a great deal of useless, even counter-productive effort.

But perhaps most importantly, have a clear idea of the information you're trying to get. In many ways, it's like an exam; understand the question, and then attempt to answer it. That way you have a better chance of getting the right answer down on paper ... or at least, having the satisfaction of knowing that you understood, just before the horrific minions of Cthulhu come knocking on your door.