Sunday, 16 May 2021

Private Investigations (Mutant City Blues)

The recent Mutant City Blues reboot offers the option of playing as a heightened private detective in this brave new world of superpowers and those who abuse them, and that got me thinking: just what is a private detective, anyway?

The oldest examples are crooks who went straight - sort of. Men like France's Eugène François Vidocq, a rakehell, soldier, convict, probable forger, duelist and martial artist who turned his life around and, in 1811, joined the cops. Later, when the Sûreté decided in 1833 that it didn't need recruits with a criminal history, Vidocq formed his own investigative agency, Le bureau des renseignements, made up mainly of ex-cons like himself. Larger than life and full of devilment, Vidocq became the subject of plays, books, gossip, and several films, from the silent era to modern day.

His English equivalent is Jonathon Wild, Thief-Taker General, who operated roughly a century before Vidocq but without the latter's successful career. Less a crook gone straight, more a crook gone even more crooked, this gang boss decided that, in the absence of a police force, he'd act as the police. This allowed Wild endless opportunities for bribe-taking, racketeering and bounty hunting. Wild would offer to find and return stolen goods, and then extract cash from the thieves and the putative owners, threatening to expose criminals or actually turning them over for the bounty on their heads. It all came crashing down when Londoners started taking corruption seriously, for the first and possibly last time, and Wild went to the gallows in 1725, later ending up on the dissection table. His skeleton is possibly the most famous one in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons.

In the United States the most famous private investigator is Allen Pinkerton, a cooper (maker of barrels) who by chance discovered a gang of counterfeiters, informed on them, and as a result became a Chicago police detective. From there he went from strength to strength, eventually becoming Lincoln's spymaster in the Civil War, a union buster and a terror to train robbers and bandits. The agency he founded still exists today, and became synonymous with private investigation - the Pinkertons.

The earliest fictional detectives tend to operate along these lines, albeit slightly more respectably. Poe's Auguste Dupin is a man born to money but now poor, a kind of gentleman detective who can operate in both the respectable and less-respectable realms because he belongs to both, by training and circumstance. He shares this quality with Sherlock Holmes, whose antecedents might be of the squirearchy but whose financial constraints lead him to make money the best way he can. 

Holmes' creator Conan Doyle was himself comfortably middle class, but spent his early life in straitened circumstances due to his father's alcoholism and spent much of his early career bouncing from failed job to failed job before finding a niche in fiction. Whereas Dashiell Hammett left school at age 13 to work, eventually becoming a Pinkerton himself and, later, a soldier, before ever committing a fiction, and Hammett's protagonists are fiercely independent fixers and private agents. His contemporary Raymond Chandler had a decidedly rosier early life, but again financial woes intervened and he turned to writing to solve his cash problems, creating fictional characters like Philip Marlowe, world-weary intermediaries between the rich and those who would prey on the rich.

    Big Sleep trailer. Sourced from Movieclips

Agatha Christie meanwhile had a conventional early life unmarked by the kind of financial and social hardships that created Hammett, and thus Hammett's Sam Spade. So her characters are themselves fairly conventional. Christie's Poirot operates in a world in which he can specialize in the detection of murder, and Miss Marple doesn't really have to earn a living at all but finds herself mixed up in murders regardless. Whereas Spade has to do what he can to get by, and will take, say, $200 if you offer him, say, $100 to find a mysterious missing objet d'art.

Already we can see a stylistic break. For Hammett's Spade, how is less important than who, and why is usually self-explanatory. There's no question about anybody's motive in the Maltese Falcon, nor are there exotic poisons and doubts about time of death. Floyd Thursby is shot to death, Miles Archer is shot to death, all out in the open rather than behind locked doors, and the central question isn't how or why they died but where the Falcon is right now, and who has it. 

Whereas Christie's Poirot, Dorothy Sayer's Sir Peter Wimsey and others of their type are obsessed with how and why, and less concerned about who. The Mysterious Affair at Styles features a wealthy woman poisoned with strychnine, and the central question becomes how that poison was obtained, whether or not people knew about the dead woman's altered will, and how the poison was administered. Novels like these care about who did it only because someone has to have done it; the prize for working out the puzzle is finding out who, but the puzzle is the point, not the murderer.

So a Hammett protagonist navigates an uncertain world of changing allegiances and lies, where a Christie protagonist lives in a fairly certain world where crime is more of a logical conundrum than an opaque mist of bluff and counter-bluff.  You'd never get a speech like Sam Spade's at the end of Maltese Falcon in a Christie novel. A Poirot never needs to explain himself, or examine his own motives, because Poirot knows his motives are pure. A Sam Spade knows his motives are anything but pure. Yet that speech is the bleeding heart of Maltese Falcon. There is no heart in The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

From these early beginnings come others, operating broadly along similar lines - the specialist, the clever amateur, the genius. Seldom are they former crooks, like Vidocq or Wild. More often they are former detectives, like Spade or Poirot. Very often they're neither of those things but happen to wind up near a murder regardless, whether they bake cookies for a living or have a famous detective for a father. The more respectable the author, the more likely it is the detective will be someone either respectable or formerly respectable but now in straitened circumstances. The crime is nearly always murder, and when it isn't murder to begin with it usually becomes murder by the third or fourth chapter. A far cry from The Maltese Falcon's snatch job gone wrong, Dupin's purloined letter, or Holmes' Beryl Cornet. Finding the McGuffin isn't anything like as important, in this kind of narrative, as unmasking the killer.

The world these fictions live in is quite nice, on the whole. Someone might threaten them or try to hurt them, but as a general rule folks are pleasant, innocent creatures and they're not at the mercy of circumstance. If anything, it's the detective's job to ensure the world remains pleasant for everyone, and when it isn't they step in to make it so.

Every so often someone like Walter Mosley comes along and the detective returns to his roots as a middleman in a larger, dangerous world. In that kind of fiction nobody's completely innocent, least of all the protagonist, and often the dividing line between success and failure is vanishingly slight. However the Mosley's of this world are the exception rather than the rule; in fiction, there are far more Marples than there are Easy Rawlins. 

Devil in a Blue Dress, from Sony Pictures

So after all that rambling, the central question: who or what is a private detective?

The private detective is a hired agent whose job is to help their client achieve a particular goal. A contractor. A middleman. It's not their job to build a legal case against a guilty party, but to build the case their client wants them to. Equally is it not their job to denounce anyone from a pulpit. They work for pay, like everyone else, and their day-to-day resembles more a researcher's than a gunslinger's.

When your detective is a man like Thief-Taker Wild the client is usually someone who wants to stifle potential scandal or avoid a criminal conviction, and will pay any amount of money to make sure the truth never comes out. When your detective is someone like Vidocq then the client is someone who has been failed by the authorities, possibly because of political shenanigans, and will pay any amount of money to get what they want - whether or not they deserve it. Dashiell Hammett's protagonist in The Glass Key, gambler and racketeer Ned Beaumont, is built along Vidocq's lines, as is Sam Spade of Maltese Falcon fame. Philip Marlowe leans more to Thief-Taker Wild, particularly in The Big Sleep.    

If your detective is someone like Allen Pinkerton then everyone's operating within the law, but the law is a very big tent and can include intimidation, beatings, political twisting and shady deeds. Immoral, but not necessarily illegal. Or, if illegal, the kind of illegality that is seldom prosecuted and almost never successfully prosecuted. Mosely's Easy Rawlins operates in this kind of world. 

If your detective is a Dupin, Holmes or Poirot then not only is everyone operating within the law but also the law has a decidedly moralistic tinge. Poirot can say, in all seriousness, that he disapproves of murder - and he does so because his creator disapproves of murder. In much the same sense someone might disapprove of opening a liquor store on Sunday, or of spanking children, or of sexual behavior. Murder is wrong and people who do wrong things are punished. Q.E.D. Most modern police procedurals - The Rookie, Law & Order, especially L&O SVU - fall in this category. There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are supposed to win. 


If you're looking for strict realism in your game then you're probably going to want to lean towards the Pinkerton model. Vidocq and Thief-Taker Wild belong to an earlier age, when there is very little law to speak of and almost as little civil authority. Modern society couldn't survive without some kind of organized leadership. Someone's got to be the glue holding this rickety bucket together, after all, and it's not going to be the PCs - they're too busy getting into fights and looking out for Number One. 

There's a lot of talk about Invincible right now, for obvious reasons, and while I've not watched it through I have noticed something odd about the series - and perhaps it holds true for all modern superhero comics. In Invincible, there really isn't an organized leadership of any kind. Buildings blow up and civilians get vaporized, but there's no suggestion of a civil authority, no real government at all. It's almost as if the planet is just a pretty backdrop for selfish costumed jackasses who want to party. 

A private investigator has to operate within society's rules, a superhero doesn't. A private investigator has to worry about getting arrested, about keeping her nose clean and not getting caught doing something shady. If the PI doesn't worry about those things then the best they can hope for is to have their license pulled, at which point they're not a PI any more. The worst case is time in jail, if not the death penalty.

In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade spends a fair amount of time keeping the cops at bay, and calling his attorney to make sure he and his client don't get railroaded.

The same holds true for your PCs. In any private investigator game the cops, the civil authority, the mayor's office and whoever else are all going to get in the PI's face. This might be because the PI is holding onto explosive information that could embroil the city in scandal, or it might just be because the PI is a pain in the ass who doesn't play well with others. Which would explain why the character isn't working within the HCIU. Either way, one of the main antagonists in any PI game is going to be the city itself, whether or not the character has a decent relationship with the cops at the local precinct.

The Pinkerton-style world is a little different from the Miss Marple and Poirot model. In a Pinkerton world the authorities may actively work against the investigator, our of malevolence or protecting their own interests. At best the authorities passively block the investigator at every turn, or make things more difficult. There are constraints on what the PI can do, and the authorities enforce those constraints.

In the Poirot kind of fiction the investigator - who doesn't hold any kind of license and is the very definition of a free agent - can do as they like, because the authorities are assumed to be on their side. They share goals, because this is a moralistic world in which people who do bad things are punished, and the law is implicitly on the side of those who do good. Poirot might have a friendly or not-so-friendly rivalry with the detective in charge of the case, but Poirot's relationship with the law as an institution is always sound. 

Take The Rookie. Nathan Fillion's John Nolan is always going to be on the side of righteousness, because that's the essence of his character. If tempted, he will never eat the apple. Thus his relationship with the LAPD is always going to be good, even when (at the end of the second season) it appears to everyone as if Nolan's gone rogue. The Rookie's LAPD is always on the side of the angels, and Nolan is basically an angel at heart, so the LAPD will always back Nolan's play.

Fictions like the Rookie might ape Chandler and Hammett in some superficial respects - after all, they all take place in Los Angeles, the heartland of detective fiction in America - but they differ in fundamental ways, which you as Game Moderator should bear in mind. The most fundamental of which is that, in a Rookie fiction, bad guys are always punished by the righteous, while in a Hammett fiction bad guys may or may not be punished, and if they are it's seldom by the righteous. 

That in turn will determine the shape of your campaign going forward, which means it's a vital part of your Session Zero. What kind of fiction do your players lean towards? Do they like the idea of being cogs in a mincing machine? A Pinkerton-style go-between, acting on behalf of less-than-innocent clients - perhaps even doing things that a more moral character would recoil at? Falsifying evidence, theft, bearing false witness? Then their clients are going to be powerful, unscrupulous people who want what they want whether or not they deserve it, because in that kind of world nobody deserves anything. They only keep what they can take.


Do they like the idea of being the clever, morally centered Poirot, Marple, Monk or Rookie? The kind of person who, like Poirot, refuses to act on behalf of the unworthy 'because I do not like your face?' Then their clients are going to be innocent people looking for something that rightfully belongs to them. No grey areas, only moral absolutes, and the adventure along the way involves solving puzzles, not playing several different gangs of crooks against each other and hoping to come out on top. In fact solving the puzzle is the only reason this kind of detective exists. That's why Holmes examines cigarette ash and Miss Marple interrogates vacationers at a Caribbean getaway. It's implicit that the criminal is bad and must be punished, and because it's implicit nobody's going to be examining their motives or delve into psychological angst over them. That just leaves the locked-room question as the meat of the narrative.

Knives Out

Anyway, that's it for this week's discussion. Next week, some Mutant City Blues scenario seeds ...

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