Magic, Crime, and Punishment, Part 1: Challenges of Magical Crime Investigation


This is the first of three separate sections of a discussion on crime and punishment in a high fantasy setting.




Magic, Crime, and Punishment

The Challenges of Magical Crime Investigation


"It’s one of the most drought-damned brilliant and subtle tricks I’ve ever seen,” the Guardian of Eonae said with real admiration in his voice. “The boy’s using elemental magic—in a suppression pentagram, no less!—to effectively cloak their speech with some absolutely inspired… well, I guess you would have to call it sound encoding…"

--Willowwind Forestfist in Phoenix Rising


In bygone days of a century or more ago, criminals had it pretty good; if no one saw you commit the crime, and you were halfway smart about hiding the evidence, there was a darned good chance you'd get away with it. Go back more than a couple of hundred years, and soon you get to the point that in many areas of the world (though not all) there were no clear rules of evidence and even less technology and investigative techniques to uncover the truth in a criminal case.


Today, of course, everything has changed. Touch the wrong surface and you've left a fingerprint; drink from the wrong glass and you might leave your DNA at the scene. Scrub the murder scene so it looks spotless; traces of blood might still be on the knife, hidden where you can't reach. Bank records can be checked at the speed of light to see if you deposited unusual sums of money, or if the credit card of your victim was used in a telltale location; your car may reveal that you visited a particular area of the country by the pollen or leaves found on it. Psychological analysis may even outline what you're like and create a profile good enough to put the spotlight on you in the absence of direct evidence – leading to your being caught anyway. Scientific advances have had a profound effect on the realm of criminal investigation and prosecution.


This should be no less true in a world with advanced magical capabilities. In my own Phoenix Rising, there are some significant scenes illustrating these principles: the scenes (partially quoted above) of the investigation of the escape from supposedly escape-proof quarters; discussion of the investigation of the murder of Kyri's parents; and Tobimar and Poplock's careful investigations that eventually lead them to Kyri.


This is hardly a new idea, of course; Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series are a deliberate play on the idea, a police procedural set in a world where science is almost unknown but scientific, systematic magic is commonplace, and Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden combines modern police procedure with magical investigative work. There are many more examples, both old and new.


This kind of approach, however, places some pretty heavy restrictions on the author. The most important is consistency. The fantasy world has to have rules and it has to stick by those rules without fail. Any investigative story worth reading has to "play fair" – it has to, if not give us the information necessary to solve the cases, at least the information needed to understand how the case was solved.


This is not easy. John W. Campbell's famous objection to the idea of science-fiction mysteries (which resulted in Asimov's classic The Caves of Steel )– that the sleuth could solve crimes using some gadget or sense which doesn't exist – applies doubly to fantasy. At least in real science fiction many of our laws of nature can be assumed to apply by default, but it's quite possible to postulate – and even find – fantasy which actually changes the basis of natural law, from our modern physics understanding to, say, the old Aristotolean laws, or even new, original paradigms of natural behavior.


Thus, a "fair" mystery in a fantasy setting requires that the writer make sure that the reader either is outright told, or can deduced from context, the rules of their world, especially where those rules violate the basic rules we know in ours.


Even if the novel isn't specifically a mystery, any mysteries contained within it will have a greater solidity if the reader, upon finding the answer to their questions, says "Oh yeah, that makes sense!" rather than "Oh. Well, it's magic, I guess it can do what it wants." There are of course practical limits; an author would be at best ill-advised and at worst career-suicidal to make every novel into a detailed theoretical discussion of their world, and not every question of the reader needs to be answered in this fashion. Knowing when you've given enough but not too much… well, that's part of the basic nail-biting challenges of being an author.


One of the key questions is to address what your magic/gods can do in the world, and how that will affect law enforcement. More, you need to understand the limits of these powers. After all, if you have an infallible truth-telling spell, no one can ever lie to you in testimony; there would never be any question of perjury since any attempt to lie would be instantly caught. This may be exactly what you want, but it has immense implications for trials and their outcomes. This applies equally to science fiction with super-science gadgets that replicate magical effects of this nature.


In some cases, you may have some limits of law and custom on using it; Isaac Asimov had a legal requirement in his Wendell Urth SF mysteries that no one could be "psychoprobed" twice in their life, and only for a specific crime or information connected to that crime, so police would often hold off on requesting psychoprobe information on career criminals until they could get a shot at a major crime rather than a minor one that the crook might be quite willing to do a bit of time for so that they'd be ever-after immune. By contrast, in H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy the standard court procedure is to use an apparently infallible truth-sensing device for every person testifying at a trial.


But in fantasy, things can go a lot farther. A magician or a priest may just be able to literally raise the dead. "Hey, Joe. Who was it who killed you yesterday?" "Oh, that was Manny. Dude, you owe me BIG for that resurrection! That knife in the back hurt!" Or perhaps they can ask the gods for information on the past – what happened, and how, and even why. Maybe, even, they can see the future – and know crimes before they happen!


On the other hand… if they can really do all that all the time, you should have a crimeless state, or at the least one in which justice is always served, where motives cannot be hidden, where no crime goes unsolved. Depending on the precise nature of the powers and the governments involved, this could be a utopia… or the most iron-fisted dictatorship imaginable, with an unbreakable grip on the populace, prosecuting them for thoughtcrimes or, even, future crimes that haven't even taken place (and because the perpetrator's been arrested, won't take place, so where's the justification…?).


To make a world that's looser and that allows for crimes that are unsolved, or at least hard to solve, the world has to have some kind of balances for these powers. There are innumerable examples of well-thought-out magical worlds that one could study; I'm going to talk mostly about my own because I – no surprise! – know more about that one than any other.


In Phoenix Rising's world of Zarathan, most of what I describe above is possible; there are truth-sensing spells and powers, there are some methods to raise the dead – for a moment, or permanently – there are methods to sense the future, there are gods who can tell people what has happened within their vision, and so on.


Yet there are many mysteries in that world, because none of these powers are unlimited. On Zarathan, many of those limitations stem from the fact that there are direct opposing powers involved. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of gods of varying power levels on Zarathan, and these have a vast number of competing agendas. While most deity-granted truthtelling powers will be able to at least sense when another god is in opposition to that information, this fact won't reveal the truth they're seeking; some gods of mischief might just mess up your truthtelling for the hell of it, so the fact that your truthtelling fails on Person X doesn't necessarily indicate they're lying, or even that they have significant information to impart.


The assassination of the Sauran King is of course the single most shocking (from the point of view of the people living in that world) event of the novel. This is the highest profile crime of all, and it can be taken as a matter of course that all the available resources were bent towards trying to solve it. Yet it is clear that – at least as of the last time we saw Toron – there was no clear idea of who or what committed the assassination, or why. We as readers have a good idea who was behind it, of course, but no one in the book does.


Given that, and the events we saw with the death of Rion (and later the fight with Thornfalcon), we can see at least one likely limitation: you cannot speak with the dead or raise them if there is no soul left, and the King must have, then, had his soul ripped apart, perhaps in the same manner as Rion (although in this case, the King did not suspect the assault and thus was killed instantly rather than living for a few moments afterwards).  Also, even if the soul is still intact, raising the dead is basically calling the soul back from the afterlife and trying to stuff it back into its body. The soul may not appreciate this if it was in, or on its way to, the equivalent of heaven, and even if the soul's cool with it, the deity to whom the soul's been consigned may simply say "no".


In addition, in the specific case of the assassination of the Sauran Kingit is remarked, several times, that the assassin's ability to walk unnoticed and undetected through the halls of the Dragon's Palace is extremely rare and noteworthy. Presumably this also assisted the unknown killer in leaving little to no traces of its true nature and origin, and prevented even other observing powers from seeing the truth.


A different form of direct opposition is seen in the investigation of the disappearance of the five young people from the Star Cell; here, Toshi's unexpected essential control of elemental magic, combined with the disruption of monitoring caused by the murder of the King and disappearance of his killer, directly opposes Willowwind Forestfist's attempts to investigate the events, as indicated in the quote beginning this section. Willowwind is performing operations very similar to those of a modern investigator reviewing monitoring tapes, while Toshi was essentially fuzzing the recordings in crucial ways.


A broader interference is mentioned in passing several times; teleportation and similar instant/swift travel magics appear to be much more limited than in the past, thereby curtailing rapid travel and communication. This is not directly explained, but I can say that it is part of the deliberate and long-term plans of the major villains of the series; they have arranged their own approaches to be at least partially unaffected by this disruption, and thus have put their opponents at a disadvantage.


Failing a teleport, unfortunately, is a much more hazardous issue than failing in something like a scrying attempt; the price for failure can range from a feedback headache to dismemberment, disintegration or – often worse – having your teleport diverted somewhere you really didn't want to go, since it is quite often the case that the reason your teleport failed is that something is deliberately interfering. So once it's known that teleportation and similar super-fast travel methods aren't working as well as they should, people have a very strong incentive to stop using them. Of course, some people like Khoros have tricks most other beings don't know, and thus can't easily stop.


Future-sensing – precognition – is possible in the world of Zarathan; in fact, we have seen a minor but very powerful form of precognition in the first book set in that universe, my first novel Digital Knight. Sylvia Stake's "feelings" are shown to proceed from a short term sense of what is about to happen. This is a powerful ability in that it appears to be able to work regardless of the power of the entities involved in her visions; she was able to detect a werewolf's imminent attach when those creatures are normally quite undetectable (save by Jason's one trick, and even that turns out to work only on the "younger" creatures). Tobimar's perceptions in the later battles also show some of this, where he is looking at the world and for a moment perceiving events as they could be, but not as they are.


This power's effects are limited in two ways in the broader universe of these books. First, true precognitives are exceedingly rare; it's difficult to see through time to that which will be. Second, those that exist mostly see possible but not certain futures; as Yoda said, "always in motion is the future". Very few show futures that will be (assuming no action is taken to avert them), only futures that could be. The other limitation is that many, many powers will work hard to obscure precognition; the fact is that if you had really reliable precognition, you pretty soon might find yourself in a universe without clear free-will (see Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen).


Up next: Preventing crimes and chasing criminals.





  1. Consistency is very important for the generation of verisimilitude in any science-fictional or fantastic world — possibly even more important in fantasy because most educated people know something about the fundamental laws of physics, so you don’t need to explain electricity or gravity to them, but the Laws of Magic vary greatly from universe to universe. Science fiction has to do the same thing though when it comes to hypothetical laws or background technologies: for instance, the “orders of forces” in the Skylark series, or the inertialess drives in the Lensman universe.

    In either SF or fantasy it’s vital to know police and criminal capabilities if you’re telling a story about criminals trying to get away with or police trying to solve crimes, just as knowing the matchups is important in a war story. If the police have the city 100% covered with videocameras, then you won’t have many muggings unless the muggers have something up their sleeves to disguise their identities or block the reporting of the crimes, for instance. If a mugger does nothing to prevent detection under such circumstances and the police catch him, it doesn’t show how brilliant are the cops but rather how dumb is the crook.

    This is vital because any speculative fiction story depends on the willing suspension of disbelief, and if the magical or technological elements aren’t internally consistent, the suspension snaps and the disbelief goes crashing down. I wrote an essay on this myself, right here

    on Fantastic Worlds.

Your comments or questions welcomed!