Times were tough, but the private eye business looked like a good gamble at the time.
By DAVID SHAMAH
It was another typical New York November day, with the wind howling and dragging the trash through the craggy streets and concrete canyons. She walked into my office, wearing black shoes, a gray dress and a white sweater. I was wearing my good suit, that Barney's job with the gray lapel. Yep, back in the 30s, a private eye saw things in shades of gray - I wouldn't start to see clients in color clothing until about 1959 or so.
Anyway, she was my first client ever. Times were tough, but the private eye business looked like a good gamble back then; Charlie Chan always seemed to have a few bucks in his pocket. And so, I put out my shingle, and I was in business. But then my first client walked in - and the trouble began.
She walked in flashing a stack of bills. "I need your help," she said, giving me a cheesecake pose that would have floored a lesser man. But I was wise to her type.
"It's my little sister," said the dame, who called herself Sylvia Bacchi. "Someone did Jane in, and the cops are stonewalling. Find out who did it and all this is yours."
Nowadays, of course, I wouldn't sneeze at less than 5 Gs for a case, but in those days $220 seemed like a lot of dough.
"Okay lady, I'll take the case, but on my terms," I bluffed, not knowing just what my terms should be. "Gumshoes are a dime a dozen in this burg, if you don't like it, take your business elsewhere," I said. She bought it, though.
"No, I need to know as soon as possible. Find the creep what done in my little sister." I could have sworn I saw a tear well up in her eye, but she just threw the tissue I offered back in my face.
"I ain't no crybaby," Sylvia said. "Just do your job, and bring me the mug's head on a platter," she said.
So I had my first assignment. I was now in the same club as James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Dick Tracy! Ah, but I was no Tracy; I pounded the pavement looking for clues. But I couldn't find a thing as I combed the city. Nothing. This wasn't going to be as easy as I thought.
Obviously I needed some help - and I turned to the one friend I knew I could always count on. Doing a quick Internet search, I discovered what I needed to become a first-class detective - and take a stab at cracking the case of the murdered Jane Bacchi.
A sleuth is what I wanted to be, and Sleuth (http://sleuth.hypotheticalsoftware.com), the on-line detective game, seemed to be just what I needed to learn the ropes. In fact, the site was eerily like the world I had decided to join: a black and white New York (you can work in Delhi, London, or Shanghai instead, if you prefer) populated by malicious miscreants, scuzzy bartenders, mafia muscle men and corrupt cops.
You register on the Sleuth site, create your detective and choose your avatar (iconic representative). I, of course, was the former crusading journalist who decided to put his money where his mouth was and fight crime where it counts - on the streets (either male or female, your detective's archetype could also be a former prowler, disgruntled cop, disgraced doctor, retired lawyer or dilettante, among others).
But virtual PIs, like real people, have different personalities and strengths - and those personality differences weigh heavy on a detective's performance in Sleuth. Some detectives are more charming than others, while others can stare down even the toughest hoods and turn them into stool pigeons. Then there are the PI's with the brains - the ones who can walk into a crime scene and make like Sherlock Holmes, figuring out whodunnit just by looking at the angle of a cigarette resting in an ashtray. Your Sleuth character comes equipped with a skill set that emphasizes one of these personalities - but the trick to being a good detective is to pick up skills you don't have. Your character can learn these skills, like lock picking, interrogation techniques, hair, thread or handwriting analysis, "sweet talking", "rule bending" - or even pugilism (i.e. boxing) - among many others. You don't actually have to attend class to attain these abilities - you just buy them in the Detective Store.
You start your job when a client hires you (i.e, when you begin a game - levels range from beginner to "nearly impossible"). You begin by interviewing the client - who may or may not have useful information for you, and indeed may or not be the perpetrator! After that, it's on to the murder scene, examination of the evidence, checking out motives, and interviewing suspects - who will almost certainly have an alibi.
AH, BUT not necessarily a rock-solid alibi. Your job as a Sleuth detective is to discover the holes in suspects' alibis, weigh them against the evidence and motive, and accuse the guilty of the crime. If you accuse correctly, you get paid and your detective gets more power and credit. Accuse wrongly, though, and it can cost you; you could even lose your detective license if you mess up too many times! It may seem as if private eyes have lots of fun, but their day-to-day work is slow and tough, and you've got to be a "people person" to succeed.
One hand washes the other, and both hands wash the face, as the old saying goes - and you need the help of the shady characters populating your town. Bankers, tailors, bartenders, waiters - all can be sources of information. But make sure you ask your informant if s/he "needs" anything. These people can be your best friends, putting you on the right track - or your worst enemies, steering you in the opposite direction of where you need to go!
In fact, some of these folks may ask you for a favor - and if you help them out, they are likely to reward you with a piece of equipment that cannot be easily acquired, but will help you out immeasurably when you work on cases. If you get really good at Sleuth, you can even open your own detective agency and really rake it in, getting other detectives to work for you, while you travel the Sleuth world giving speeches and taking on "high profile" cases.
If you're looking for shoot-em-up action, you're looking up the wrong alley here - but if you want an intelligent, thinking person's problem-solving activity, Sleuth will give you your money's worth (a basic subscription, in which you can play up to three mysteries a day, is actually free). Besides being absorbing, interesting and lots of fun, Sleuth is a good introduction to the flatfoot business - and maybe you'll be able to solve the mystery of whatever happened to Baby Jane Bacchi.
I decided to drop the case after I visited the murder scene - and fainted when I saw blood on the carpet! From now on, I'll stick to the virtual gumshoe adventures on Sleuth. While a basic subscription is free, for $36 a year you can play up to 10 games a day, as well as have access to features unavailable to other players. According to the game's site, "Sleuth contains literary violence and mildly suggestive themes. It is intended for players 13 years of age and older."