Tana French on the selection games of detective work

by Suspended Reason

One of the insights of the selection game is that evaluation is partially adversarial1: candidate and evaluator are not goal-aligned; the candidate’s interest lies in selection (passing the test) and the evaluator’s in selecting the most capable candidate (successfully administering the test, and effectively screening candidates). Thus the evaluator must often be deceptive, must stay illegible. The nature of their tests must stay mysterious, to protect against cheap and degenerate play. They must often hide the very fact that a test is occurring, or mislead candidates as to their epistemic state, or the kind of responses which would constitute passing.2 Thus French’s protagonist, Detective Ryan, writes of the job:

[Truth] is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her… What we do is crude, crass and nasty. A girl gives her boyfriend an alibi for the evening when we suspect him of robbing a north-side Centra and stabbing the clerk. I flirt with her at first, telling her I can see why he would want to stay home when he’s got her… Then I tell her we’ve found marked bills from the till in his classy white tracksuit bottoms, and he’s claiming that she went out that evening and gave them to him when she got back. I do it so convincingly, with such delicate crosshatching of discomfort and compassion at her man’s betrayal, that finally her faith in four shared years disintegrates like a sand castle and through tears and snot, while her man sits with my partner in the next interview room saying nothing except Fuck off, I was home with Jackie,” she tells me everything from the time he left the house to the details of his sexual shortcomings.

Of course, calling this a pursuit of truth is romanticizing what’s actually be optimized for, which is a confession, a closed case. Because the detective is in a selection game—to keep his job, be promoted up, get better caseloads, better shifts, less gruntwork. He wants respect from his colleagues, his sergeant. Thus the institution forms a nested or hierarchical structure of partially adversarial selection games, each level performing for the level above it.

  1. Partially” adversarial insofar as all actual games of strategy are mixed-motive, and can only approach the limit of, or be dominated by, cooperative or adversarial dynamics.↩︎

  2. Sometimes in social science, these dynamics are called reflexivity,” insofar as we read and write in a cybernetic loop.↩︎