These are my pre-play and post-play thoughts on Cthulhu Confidential, a GUMSHOE game from Pelgrane Press. It’s by Robin Laws, Chris Spivey, and Ruth Tillman. Short version: if you want a sourcebook for noir Cthulhu Mythos play, it’s great, and it works way better than I expected for one-on-one roleplaying.
Seattle has a great film scene. It’s on par with San Francisco — no Alamo Drafthouse up here, but we have the Cinerama and SIFF is an excellent film society. I thought I was going to miss Eddie Mueller’s San Francisco based film noir festivals, but it turns out he runs a slightly abbreviated version of the festival up here every year.
It’s that time of year! This’ll be my third go-round at one version or another of this festival. Previous years have coincided with lapsed blogging, alas.
This year’s festival leans heavily into the classics. I am looking forward to watching The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon again. I’ve never seen Mildred Pierce or The Blue Dahlia. This should be awesome.
You knew a career criminal by the name of Nolan. First name unknown; she never used it, not even with her close friends, which not all of you are. She used to work for the Outfit, running a club in Central City, but that was five or six years ago before she ran into trouble with one of their middle manager types. For the last while, she’s been an independent, doing jobs here and there.
Right now, you’re in Iota City, a small time city a ways west of the Tri Cities, which are a distance west from Central City. A couple of you live there, and a couple of you are pausing there for a while. Nolan died there, a week ago, in the back room of the Thinker’s place. She was shot. It happens, in this business.
There was going to be a job. The Thinker planned it, as per usual. It wasn’t working for the Outfit, but it was something the Outfit was very interested in, maybe because of Nolan; she was going to use part of her part of the proceeds to pay them off, and now they’re expecting it. So it needs to be done even with her dead; and besides, there’s still enough money in it to make both you and them happy.
So there’s still going to be a job. It’s a four-person thing. The Thinker doesn’t usually come on these, but he’s going to have to this time. It’s a risky thing. That’s why nobody bigger has done it. It’s a lucrative thing. Everyone has to start somewhere, and for some of you, this is your start.
If it works out, you’ll have what they call magic money. Money enough, and time.
I’m mildly addicted to Hard Case Crime books. (Parenthetical trivia: Charles Ardai, the editor and founder of Hard Case Crime, is married to Naomi Novik, who writes the Temeraire series. Fantasy Napoleonic dragons vs. noir thrillers. Small world.)
Anyway, mildly addicted. The new books are in the style of the old books, and the old books are a fun read. Slick, completely stuck in the preconceptions and prejudice of their day, but fun. Tough guys slouch around dealing with rotten people in seedy situations, and there’s a bad idea for every gin mill and a gin mill for every chapter. There’s something charming about a milieu in which the world isn’t measured by the time it takes for an email to get to you — I suspect that one of the key dividing lines of modern fiction is the point at which cell phones became so common that you had to assume them. It’s a fundamental change in the difficulty of interactions.
The view of organized crime is a really interesting difference between these books and modern mysteries slash thrillers. Blame the trinity of Puzo, Coppola, and Scorsese, I suppose. All these old books have an organized crime that’s almost completely a corporate matter. The Organization (or Outfit, or Family, but not Mafia) has lawyers. It wears three-piece suits and does business in a fairly chilly, austere kind of a way.
In Point Blank, the money quote goes like this: “Let me tell you something about corporations, Walker. This is a corporation, I’m an officer of a corporation, and we deal in millions, we never see cash. I’ve got about eleven dollars in my pocket.” That’s the size of it. You see hints of Sicilian heritage here and there, but they get shoved into the background a lot. Sometimes you don’t really see organized crime as much as you see a big businessman whose pursuits lead him across the legal limit now and again.
I figure this reflects the corporate mindset of the fifties. It wasn’t till 1969 that Puzo blew it apart with The Godfather, and Coppola and Scorsese nailed the coffin shut, or some such suitably violent metaphor. This is about a ten year lag from the point at which the Mafia as we think of it today first really hit the American consciousness, but that sounds about right for pop culture.
This primary realization, along with a week or two spent swimming in 50s-60s noir, was the clue that unlocked Edge of Midnight for me. You want to pull back a notch and go for that chilly, corporate feel or the world doesn’t quite make sense. At least, not for me.
This leads to my one-shot idea, which is an Edge of Midnight game set in the aftermath of one of those failed jobs you got all the time. I think I’d want to kill off the protagonist, or rather, the person who’d be the protagonist in the book. I could do worse than lift Max Allan Collins’ first Nolan novel, with a dead Nolan; that leaves us with the older guy who plans jobs, his eager but wet behind the ears nephew, his nephew’s friend the driver… I’d have to rework the girlfriend, who is in no way a playable character, but I’ll think of something.