The Cavalry

Yesterday, I talked briefly about the problem in whodunnits and horror of keeping the circle closed. The combination of the wide-coverage cell phone and GPS on every smart phone has been lamented as the death knell of closed-circle suspense and horror. In fact, after seeing this montage some years ago, I jotted down a movie idea Cell Plan in which a bunch of young promiscuous college kids get together on a massive cell phone plan with fancy, unbreakable smart phones before going off to Scream Lake on an inauspicious holiday and suffer from an attrition problem.

In my Cell Plan story, the service never ever fails even in places where signal loss would be expected, such as along backroads of the US mountain ranges, or the middle of Scream Lake far away from any cell tower or underground in the abandoned mine (where the the full-moon slasher stages his attacks and hangs his trophies) blocked by tons of dense earth.

Cell Plan was an exercise in movie tropes that made use of the wireless telecommunications age, rather than seeking to stave it off with cliché failures. I imagined a phone temporarily left indoors when its owner stepped out briefly. Swapped phones (accidentally or otherwise) could cause confusion, or even false suspicions. What is Sarah doing out in the toolshed? Maybe I should check in on her. A student at the cabin serving as Mission Control for another one in rough terrain trying to escape Mr. Toothy, tracking him in real time with GPS and Google Maps. An untimely ring tone betrays a hidden student to the Machete Man. hes rit heer im hidg help! 😦 😦 😦*

Of course the primary purpose of having a phone out at Deep-woods Lodge is to call the authorities once Sarah’s hapless cadaver is found in the toolshed. The police often serve as the cavalry in mysteries and suspense horror, even sometimes properly bursting in at the last minute, as per the Clue movie (1985 based on the game). It’s certainly appropriate to how we imagine and expect law enforcement to be. I talked not long ago about the role of police forces in society in representing the state’s monopoly on force. It’s a principal basis of large civilization. Even if the notion is, in reality, more illusion than material.

In A Caribbean Mystery the police were skeptical of foul play when an old man drank too much and perished, seemingly of health concerns. (Skeptical enough at least to deprioritize exhuming him for a proper autopsy.) As a result, their intervention was delayed until the second body turned up. Similarly, real world law enforcement is prone to several problems that can (and do) mute the effectiveness of the new wireless telecommunications revolution from disrupting closed circles. For instance:

~ Responders can take a while to mobilize. In the outback near Haunted Lodge or Scream Lake this is a given, but even in settled but less-than-municipal areas with low police budgets, it can take two hours for dispatch to finally get a car to your door. And then in urban areas, the police often have to triage cases that need more attention over those that need less. A single murder can become lesser priority than an active gang-war in the avenues (then again, Cops got better things to do than get killed.) And then if your mystery or attrition problem turns out to be in the middle of gang territory, or even a lower-class neighborhood, the priority of your 911 dispatch can rapidly plummet.

~ The first responders might not be much of a match for the monster, and necessary back-up may take a while. This is common in rural and wild areas in which fully trained officers are few, and generally backed up by volunteers. When Mr. Ripper has home-turf advantage and there’s enough places to hide and flank the posse comitatus may just serve as food for the beast. Interestingly this is a common trope in crime / action, and was part of the premise of Lethal Weapon (1987) and Léon: The Professional (1994). Eventually, SWAT, the national guard and anti-terror squads will be called in, but that can take days or even weeks to arrange.

~ Responding Law Enforcement have their own agendas and can make the situation worse. I mentioned before Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in which the bodies piled up drove the abbot to send for the Holy Inquisition (starring Bernardo Gui!) When the inquisition arrived, it managed the situation pretty much the way that one might expect (or might not expect as the case may be). A fond memory of mine (of a mediocre game with some great moments) was getting tortured by the FBI (by J. Edgar Hoover!) in Call of Cthulhu, Dark Corners of the Earth. It’s how you know you can count on the good guys to help you save the world.

The problem with this approach is that it can change your story from a mystery / horror into a dystopian political thriller where our student heroes cease having to worry about Bladefingers because they’re now getting interrogated in jail for drug paraphernalia (except the minority characters, who were just summarily shot). So the writer may have to limit the interests and extent of law-enforcement intervention to fit the story. The police might ignore the claims regarding Count Von Bitey in favor of arresting the stoner kid. Or the kids may figure out in advance that the local Sheriff McWhippersnappers is useless and not worth calling if there’s a monster.**

~ Urban law enforcement has better things to do than investigate a vampire. The problem here is either your killer is too outlandish, or too pedestrian. Law enforcement doesn’t like unknowns. A murderer hiding among your party guests is going to look to the street officer like a domestic altercation got out of hand. A werewolf or a slasher is going to sound like a teen hoax. Real situations that warrant immediate response look like gang violence or drug trafficking or a storefront robber. Since yours doesn’t they’d really rather just wait until everyone on site is dead, then just arrest who’s left.

~ Real world forensics is not at the caliber of CSI and in fact the tools and suppliers used on the field favor tests that can aid in a conviction, rather than accurate tests that might be used to rule out innocent bystanders. If tests are being used on you, then law enforcement has already decided that you’re guilty, and it’s just a matter of finding evidence that will send you to a prison (regardless of your actual guilt). In fact, good old fashioned detective work, whether sifting through known facts to arrive at conclusions, or deriving new facts from tests at the scene of the crime are very much the exception, not the rule. Even police detection dogs often signal falsely (indicating a detection when there isn’t one) as much as 95% of the time. So yeah, it really is up to Poirot and Marple if you really want to separate the guilty from the innocent.

Generally, in real life, the police are not the cavalry that we’ve been raised to believe they are. It’s curious if consciousness of this may have facilitated our transition from country-gentry-turned-sociopath-murderers to supernatural-vengeance-spirits that are even less impressed by bullets than bears are.

And still, it can be a pretty satisfying finale when the police fly in with a gunship and blow the creature to kingdom-come, all the while Dr. Xeno the zoologist / paranormal expert is begging them wait, wait, she’s just misunderstood!.

Both of these can happen in the same story. The police can serve to complicate the situation in the second act, and then swoop in and save the day in the third. And that’s because law enforcement agencies are, like any other organized group or company, made of of the individuals that run it. Yes, in the 2010s there are a conspicuous lot of policies that motivate officers to be real fuckers (in this case be real fuckers can mean: rob innocent civilians of their cash and valuables; lie in court testimony to secure convictions; murder racial minorities with impunity; invade civilian privacy on fishing trips for money or prosecution-worthy wrongdoing, and so on) And while there are many officers who act on such motivations, others still have taken the notion to serve and protect to heart and genuinely seek to keep the peace on their beats. Officers in this latter group also often recognize how the real fucker behaviors of their fellows contribute towards an ever widening wedge of distrust between citizens and law enforcement, no matter how much their own superiors and labor associations condone or even encourage those behaviors.

Each of the police officers in a story are individuals with their own characterization, from the guy that pulls the kids over on the road to intimidate the stoner, to the dispatch operator at 911 trying to understand the terrible legend of Scream Lake (and as it applies to this call), to the gunship pilot who always wanted to take down The Lakeside Squidman. Each of them are individuals who have their own interests which inform how they do their job.

Homework assignment for students of suspense (including mystery and horror): Watch Strangers on a Train (1950, Farley Granger) produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Not only does the master of suspense show some of early applications of classic suspense cinema tricks used to this day, but he also pulls suspense out of the oddest of hats, just to show it can be done. (This title may be available at your local public library!)

* Amusingly, WordPress automatically translated my text-based emoticons into graphic emoji.

** In this case, it’ll probably be pretty satisfying if the monster eats Sheriff McWhippersnappers in the third act while Deputy Doright is off arranging for the gunship.

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