Investigator Investment in Dirty Secrets

In role-playing games, techniques on April 13th, 2008 at 9:18 pm

A few weeks ago, Seth and I were chatting over Google Talk, and discussion inevitably turned to Dirty Secrets. Just as inevitably, I started pontificating on the genre of detective fiction.

At one point, Seth asked me how well I thought Dirty Secrets would do stories in the vein of James Ellroy’s Los Angeles quartet of novels (Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz). That, in turn, led to a discussion of how the investigators played a different role in Ellroy’s books than they do in the “classic” hardboiled novels of Chandler and Ross MacDonald, which obviously were a big influence on Ellroy.

At the end of that discussion, Seth asked me if I would write up my thoughts as a piece for Dirty Secrets fans. This is my effort at writing such an essay. I will also be posting this to the Dark Omen Games forum and to Story Games in a couple of days.

“You smell like trouble to me,” he said.

That stopped me for a minute. He had a salesman’s insight into human weakness, and he’d touched on a fact which I didn’t always admit to myself - that I sometimes served as a catalyst for trouble, not unwillingly.

-Ross MacDonald, The Underground Man

Lew Archer - the most famous of Ross MacDonald’s characters - and Phillip Marlowe - the iconic investigator created by Raymond Chandler - are cut from the same cloth. Both are stoic, rather cynical men. Both work as private investigators because they are good at it and because the shamus biz (barely) pays the bills. Both are keen-eyed observers of humanity; in fact, that is almost all that they are.

Rather than fully fleshed-out characters - what you would expect from a novel’s protagonist - Archer and Marlowe serve as macguffins. They provoke other characters into explaining themselves - their interests, their weaknesses, their loves and their crimes. Once they are hired, the detectives make a few enquiries, probe at the contradictions, and learn what lies people are telling about themselves and each other. Eventually, the truth of the matter comes out of the other characters’ mouths. They don’t even take responsibility if a few people are killed along the way. Archer and Chandler are forces of nature.

Yes, we do know a few things about them. Archer, for example, is a divorced ex-cop that served in the Army during World War II. Eventually, in The Blue Hammer, Archer finally becomes involved in a proper relationship with. Marlowe loves to replay grandmaster games of chess in his spare time. Any character you can sum up in a sentence or two is not a typical protagonist, though.

To call these investigators one-dimensional would impugn the depth of straight lines everywhere.

The one human relationship we see Marlowe in - his friendship with Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye - is just as much a macguffin as the detectives themselves. One chapter shows the random meeting in a bar that established the friendship and fateful request that Marlowe drive him to meet a flight to Tijuana. Next we know, Lennox is dead and accused of killing his wife. Marlowe’s time in lockup gets a more involved treatment, and Lennox’s murder, while ultimately tied in to the rest of the novel’s events, takes a back seat to the events surrounding Roger and Eileen Wade for a large chunk of the book.

MacDonald’s The Underground Man features a similar hastily cobbled together macguffin relationship. In this case, Archer meets a young child whose parents are openly hostile to each other in a park while feeding birds. A few days later, he is kidnapped by his father, and the boy’s mother turns to Archer for help. Again it is notable mostly because it is a distinction that fails to make a difference to MacDonald’s style.

There is one significant exception to this pattern, though. In The Doomsters, Lew Archer finds himself confronted with a case that dredges up unhappy memories of his own past. This is a classic example of an exception that proves the rule, though. Outside of one romantic entanglement, subsequent Archer novels do not delve much deeper into his character.

Never get personally involved. It was the golden rule. And practically every case he worked, Rebus broke it. He sometimes felt that the reason he became so involved in his cases was that he had no life of his own. He could only live through other people.

-Ian Rankin, The Hanging Garden

The investigators of Ellroy’s novels, compared to the classic detectives, are well-realized characters. They are monomaniacally driven to investigate the crimes at hand, but they do so for reasons of character - even for love. Edmund Exley is out to prove that he deserves to be a high-flyer, and to prove that a straight cop can be an effective cop. Jack Vincennes busts actors on drug charges at the behest of a tabloid paper for the sake of becoming famous, leveraging that fame into a career as a movie consultant.

Bud White’s motivation is even more personal. His partner and best friend Dick Stensland is a victim of the central crime. Later, he also falls for a Veronica Lake-lookalike prostitute that works for a prime suspect. And that’s just the investigators in L.A. Confidential.

It helps that the ’40s Hollywood Ellroy portrays in his books is more lurid than the allergic-to-scandal upper class enclaves that MacDonald and Chandler look at. Still, even in summary, Ellroy’s detectives jump out at you. They have real relationships that affect their lives, they become obsessed with their cases for personal - rather than philosophical - reasons. They even have blood on their hands.

In Bladerunner, Deckard begins every bit as disaffected as Lew Archer. He doesn’t even want to take the case - tracking down murderous artificial humanoids known as replicants - but he is forced into it by his boss. As he investigates, Deckard learns things about himself that he may prefer not to know, and develops an ability to empathize with the seemingly inhuman replicants. He falls in love with a female replicant who is not involved in the killings. When, at the end of the film, the replicant leader dies at Deckard’s feet with a lament about the loss that his own death entails, Deckard is forced to contemplate his own humanity and the value of his own existence.

Chief Inspector John Rebus, the Edinburgh investigator in most of Ian Rankin’s stories, displays a different reason for being drawn into his cases. Investigating crimes dulls the pain of his own failure as a husband, father, and all-around human being. He latches onto the idea of helping victims, but really police work is his drug of choice, a method of running from personal pain.

When playing Dirty Secrets, I think these growing personal ties happen more organically when they are developed during play. If you try to create this kind of story from the start it will tend to fight several aspects of the rules. Seth disagrees with me about this, though, so your mileage may vary.

Richard Kimble: I didn’t kill my wife.
Lt. Phillip Gerard: Jury said different.

The Fugitive (2000)

My suggestion, if you want to force a personal tie between the investigator and the crime, is to establish it at the start of your story, like Bud White’s murdered partner. You need an investigator that is unable to let go of a case because the crime affected them directly. The victim is a close friend or a family member, the investigator is a suspect, or some other consequence of the crime demands that the investigator get solve the puzzle laid at their feet.

When they appear in other media this type of story lies outside the hardboiled genre that Dirty Secrets is most closely tied to. That does not mean that players must shun it, though. If they feel a connection to the investigator right off the bat, it can make the game even more powerful. It can also work well with the Corrupt Investigator variant at the end of the rules section of the Dirty Secrets book.

The canonical reference for this type of investigation is The Fugitive - both the television series (which I have not seen) and the film adaptation (which I have) - even though neither comes close to being hardboiled. Richard Kimble is accused of murdering his wife, and the only way he can prove his innocence is by finding “The One-Armed Man” who actually committed the crime and proving his guilt. In this case, Kimble gets it with both barrels, as he is accused of a crime he did not commit against the woman he loved more than any other.

Choosing how emotionally invested your investigator is will shape your story. The detached Marlowe-type will observe at arm’s length, making the game philosophical and about the other characters. A Kimble-like investigator, who is as much a victim of the initial crime as anyone, will tend toward a personal story about the investigator as a character. The investigator will be emotionally revealed during the story. An initially detached investigator who is drawn into the lives of the other characters may be even more richly drawn still, but this is also the hardest kind of story to plan out in advance.

  1. […] Investment in Dirty Secrets” by Gerald Cameron blog version Forge version Story Game […]

  2. […] Investment in Dirty Secrets” by Gerald Cameron blog version Forge version Story Game […]

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