Decoding The Detective's 'Crazy Wall'

If we follow the clues pinned to this wall, can we discover how and why, from The Wire to True Detective, no smart film or TV crime show is complete without a Crazy Wall to puzzle over? Richard Benson investigates (with pushpins).

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On Wednesday, 3 September 2014, policing in Great Britain crossed a line. In an official report published that day, the government admitted that some British forces had begun asking crime victims to investigate their own offences rather than assigning officers to the job.

People who had been burgled or had cars broken into were asked to speak to neighbours or look for CCTV footage, or even comb out second-hand shops and websites for signs of their property — this soft snooping freeing up overstretched police resources for more serious misdemeanours.

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There was much criticism, but really it was no surprise: four years earlier, in July 2010, the Home Secretary Theresa May published a white paper floating the idea of volunteer armies of “community crime fighters” and “getting people more involved in the work of their police forces”.

And while the news suggested petty crime was depressingly out of control, the initiative had a certain appeal, to men anyway — I doubt I’m the only one ever to have entertained fantasies of tracking down the guttersnipe who nicked my bike. And if you doubt the public’s appetite for solving crimes, you need look no further than the huge success of the weekly podcast Serial.

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The show explores a real-life murder that took place in Baltimore in the US in 1999. Written and presented by US journalist Sarah Koenig, it has become a global phenomenon, with more than five million listeners.

I say “listeners”, but they tend to be a bit more than that, spending their free time hunting out new clues, mapping out locations (it was a real-life crime, remember), and building theories that they share on social media.

The Serial page on internet forum reddit.com features, among other things, analysis of statements and police reports, guides to the protagonists’ mobile phone records and dozens of maps used to collate and chart evidence. These complement the “Maps, Photos, Etc” section of the podcast’s website, which gathers yet more documents. It’s all very hard to tear yourself away from, and if it’s the future of crime detection, it also marks the point at which the “Crazy Wall” went crowd-sourced and global.

Crazy Wall is the catch-all term for the boards on which investigators pin up and plot out all their clues in crime and spy thrillers, and recently it has become unthinkable for almost any serious TV drama not to have some sort of board for the characters to contemplate as they try to work out the kinks of a theory.

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[Above: Rust Cohle's Crazy Wall in True Detective]

In set-design terms, we have entered the age of the “Post-it Procedural”: last October, I sat in a cinema and watched back-to-back trailers (Before I Go To Sleep and A Most Wanted Man) with strongly-featured Crazy Walls, before watching Andrew Garfield construct another, rather un-super, Staples-ish number in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

In True Detective, Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle had a storage locker containing all his conspiracy-clutter evidence of a “sprawl” of child abuse and murder, three walls of chipboard, newspaper cuttings, “Missing” posters, vintage video equipment, notes, maps and photographs, all set off by satanic-ritual gear and lit by industrial arc lights.

It looked good, like a newly-opened hipster stationery shop, and from the lingering shots, you knew the director wanted us to clock it. Cohle’s wall (Crazy Walls are always referred to as singular, even if they’re a three-wall sprawl) was the best-dressed in a year that saw many strong contenders, including Molly Solverson’s secret basement number in the TV reboot of Fargo; the collage that takes over half of 221B Baker Street in Sherlock; or Saga’s beautiful, Scandi-monochrome, OCD-precise boards in Danish/Swedish crime hit The Bridge.

“They’ve been around for a while, though nothing like in the numbers they are now,” says Christina Bunce, a director of the Professional Writing Academy, which develops online writing courses with John Yorke, a celebrated TV drama producer and authority on televisual story structure.

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“I suspect they were first seen in Cold War spy thrillers, which in their use of duplicity, aliases and paranoiac themes, have much in common with the new wave of TV crime drama that has really popularised them. That’s because the story runs over many episodes and is typically intricately plotted, so you need recaps. They’re also suited to drama that trades in conspiracy and hidden connections, which has become popular post-WikiLeaks, Snowden and Hackgate.”

In other words, the Crazy Wall is TV’s way of marking the era in which we all became armchair conspiracy theorists.

Crazy Wall is the term most often used in film-nerd discussions of these telegenic collages of clues and cuttings, but tvtropes.org, the website that identifies frequently-used plot devices, points out several variants. First there is the “Room Full of Crazy” ie, an entire room papered and pinned by a criminal conspirer or conspiracy victim (the first series of ITV’s Whitechapel went even further and gave its ripper-obsessive serial killer a whole flat, including a fridge with human body parts).

[Above: Carrie's Crazy Wall, Homeland]

Second, there is the “Stalker Shrine”, a wall covered in images of an unwitting someone who almost invariably will be kidnapped by the shrine-creator.

Third, the “String Theory” board may be constructed by either an investigator or criminal, and is all about connections, usually marked by coloured ribbon or string. In some cases, the connections will tip the investigator into madness, with this descent reflected in the mess: remember John Nash’s (Russell Crowe) black-ribbon spider’s web in A Beautiful Mind (2001)?

Finally, there is your basic “Big Board”, which can be anything charting important characters and events. The most common example is what the (real) police call investigation boards — in drama, anything from Happy Valley’s meagre whiteboards to CSI’s translucent tech-porn digital screens and The Wire’s influential, free-standing collections of index cards and photographs mapping Avon Barksdale’s drug-dealing networks.

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Do the police really use them? You rather expect the answer to be a grudging “no”, but in fact, it’s not so simple. As one Humberside Police officer told me, “Most police dramas are quite accurate now. The days when we watched The Bill and laughed have gone — procedures are pretty well-researched, to be honest.”

British police detectives not only use Big Boards showing locations and identities of people and so on, but also can, in some cases, go on courses and workshops to develop their skills in creating and maintaining them.

The one major difference between a TV drama and real life is that in the former, detectives tend to work on one case at a time, while in reality they will be looking into several. The problems tend to be that there isn’t enough room in a single office for all the charts. They also tend to be covered up: this is officially because a suspect, or acquaintance of a suspect, might see one, and unofficially because some detective teams end up competing with each other, and try to guard clues in order to look good by being first to solve the case.

[Above: a Crazy Wall whiteboard in Fargo]

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Tim Bowers, a retired veteran New Scotland Yard detective who helped catch the Stockwell Strangler in the Eighties, adds another, subtle difference — the real police use different kinds of chart for different crimes.

“With burglaries, you’d use maps with coloured pins, because they’ll help you to spot patterns such as different times or places,” he says. “You might spot burglaries that happened next door to each other, when [at first] it wasn’t clear from the addresses that the two places were even close. With other crimes, you might map out who a villain’s mates are. You might find out who their friends were when they had been in prison, and see who they were linked to. With a kiddy murder, you’ll do a full chart of the family with all the connections showing, and profile them all. You might find that an uncle is connected to a villain, or something like that.”

The eureka moments when a detective gazes at the chart and experiences a sudden flash of understanding did happen, (“though more often when I was having a cup of tea and slice of cake in the canteen, to be honest,” he says), but in practice it isn’t generally the detectives who experience them. The teams include dedicated analysts who are trained to spot connections between separate bits of information and evidence — recurring words in statements, maybe, or a detail from specific crime scenes.

More often than not, it is an analyst who will see the connection that leads to an indictment. The Stockwell Strangler, he recalls, was caught after an analyst noticed that at a new murder scene, in the room where the killing took place, all the photographs had been turned around to face the walls. This helped to establish a link (the killer had done the same elsewhere; it turned out that he didn’t like to feel he was being watched) that eventually led to his arrest.

The modern detective’s role, then, is now that of an evaluator, checking the case the analyst is making, to see if it’s convincing enough to press charges. He also has access to psychologists, and to Holmes— Home Office Large Major Enquiry System — the computer system that collects and crunches information and picks up connections.

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[Sherlock's 'wall of rats']

Holmes (now in its second incarnation, so technically Holmes 2) does a lot of the work that would once have been done by human deduction, and in complex investigations, which can involve hundreds of people, addresses, statistics, IP addresses and so on, the chances are that software, rather than Big Boards and Crazy Walls, will tease out the links.

It was hard to accept at first, Bowers says. “It was the same with the shrinks. Sometimes they or the computer would tell you things that sort of went against the grain. They’d tell you the criminal had a bad childhood, and at that moment you maybe didn’t want to hear it, but then you’d catch them, and the chances are the shrink or the computer was right. I think you’d feel that as a police detective you ought to be able to catch the villains yourself, with the usual tools.”

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It’s hard to say when the first Crazy Wall appeared in a film or TV show, because they are hard to define; two pictures on a desk or noticeboard can count if they show a connection.

The first time one got a starring role was in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War satire, Dr Strangelove. Facing an imminent nuclear strike from the Soviet Union, the president (Peter Sellers) gathers with his military officers and advisors in a bunker where all relevant information is shown on the Big Board that gave all subsequent boards their name. At one point, the president moves to admit the Soviet ambassador and the belligerent General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) shouts, “Sir, you can’t let him in. He’ll see everything. He’ll see… the Big Board!”

Interestingly though, the great conspiracy and espionage films and TV series of the Sixties and Seventies produced relatively few Crazy Walls, and those that did appear tended to be meagre affairs. Even with all the European spy networks of the late Cold War to play with, the director of the BBC’s 1979 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stretched only to a paltry half a dozen black-and-white photos, a napkin-sized map and about eight inches of red tape.

The same lack of interest was apparent as late as 1997, in Conspiracy Theory, a romcom in which Julia Roberts plays a US Justice Department lawyer implausibly tangled up with Mel Gibson’s eccentric, conspiracy-obsessed taxi driver character (surprisingly, it wasn’t a hit). The driver does have a wall — part-Crazy Wall, part-Stalker Shrine — which provides the clue for the movie’s denouement, but it looks as if it was made in 10 minutes by a short-sighted intern: no pins, no index cards and not a single piece of string on the whole thing. (Had the Mad Max props department been so sloppy, Gibson would never have made it to Hollywood in the first place.)

And notably in The Usual Suspects (1995), Chazz Palminteri’s detective twigs too late he’s been expertly duped by Kevin Spacey’s character, who uses the police station’s information board to concoct the web of lies that saw the cop happily let him go.

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[Above: The war room from Dr Strangelove]

It’s difficult not to see 9/11, and the growth of the internet combining to be some kind of turning point — Before Conspiracy Theory and after A Beautiful Mind and The Wire. At the start of the new century, these two, often referenced by critics and prop designers, demonstrated the potential of the Big Board principle for bringing out characters and plots. In A Beautiful Mind, the graphomaniac genius John Nash fills library windows with calculations, and then the walls of his rooms with cryptology, as his obsession with code-breaking multiplies into mental illness. The walls represent, crudely speaking, Nash’s state of mind, a convention since used in Cronenberg’s Spider (2002), Primeval, Whitechapel, and Homeland, among others.

In The Wire, the boards simply record the progress of the police operation, as detectives Freamon (Clarke Peters) and Prez (Jim True-Frost) ID people with telephone tapping, write the names on index cards and pin them up. In some ways, the board is the subject of the whole first season. “We’re building something here, detective,” Freamon tells Prez in episode two, as he holds up criminal enforcer Stinkum’s card and photograph. “We’re building it from scratch. All the pieces matter.”

In the penultimate episode, Freamon pins up a newspaper clipping that completes the police’s understanding of Barksdale’s drug ring, signifying closure. This is Christina Bunce’s recap principle, seen since in the original The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo (2009), Spooks, The Next Three Days (2010), along with thousands of other police procedures. Those who endured Channel Five’s 2009 sci-fi cop thriller Flash Forward may recall the plot was based on a detective finding all the clues he had seen on his board when he blacked out and saw “the future”. (Sample line: “Hey, that’s the guy from my board! We gotta follow up on this!”).

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Pretty much all the modern Crazy Walls have one or both of these purposes. Designer Rob Treen, who made the walls for Primeval, Spooks and Happy Valley, believes that they work because of the visual expectations of modern audiences. 

“You have to remember, we’ve grown up in a culture where people use mind maps, spider diagrams, flow charts and other visualisations of information all the time in education and at work. It means that a lot of people are geared to seeing a wall as a way of showing what a character is thinking. They are visual shorthand, which is important when screen time is at a premium — sometimes in the edits you’re shaving half-seconds off scenes. And modern viewers don’t want be slapped in the face with something that is obviously there to move the plot along. You know, someone saying, ‘Oh, you’ve drawn a picture of the devil, so you must be evil’. With a wall you can show clues and let the viewer understand it.”

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Is there competition between designers, I wonder? Not really, says Treen, it’s more about working with producers and directors to represent the characters properly. The stationery, for example, has to be planned carefully. “If he or she has lo-fi tastes, hasn’t been to art school or whatever, they’ll make certain choices. They might be the sort of person who would go to Staples and buy whatever’s cheap. If I was making a wall for that person, then I would do that, too. For Primeval, I studied pictures of 19th-century asylums and psychiatric wards, and rooms that people with psychological complexes had covered in amazing materials; for police dramas, you might have to design and print your own stationery. For Happy Valley, I designed a police crest.”

This is just the start of the details. You mock up newspaper stories, you shoot pictures with CCTV, you design the walls so they look right in close-up and in long shots. You have to plan the final look knowing what actors will need to add and “find”, and when they’ll pluck at a clue in a moment of clarity. During filming, the on-set art director and script supervisor constantly photograph it so that if anything falls off, it can be stuck or pinned back in the same place. You can’t be taking any chances with chaos.

Has he got a favourite? “Well, the most visual are in CSI,” he says. “They have those beautiful glass ones you can shoot through to see the characters’ faces.”

Has he tried to suggest something similar? They have police advisors on set for TV dramas, Treen says. If you mention the CSI boards to them, they point out they are inaccurate. “Often, the reality is a whiteboard.”

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[Above: 22 Jump Street]

So, can these walls, boards and charts really help to solve crimes and reveal personalities? According to Julie Bullen, a psychologist who has worked with criminals in Broadmoor high-security hospital, it depends on your personality. Bullen works with the Myers-Briggs system, which groups people according to psychological profile. Crazy Walls, she says, appeal to the “NP type” who, led by intuition, look for non-obvious connections and bigger meanings, and avoid imposing structures in the belief that order should arise organically from within.

The NPs’ psychological opposites, who hate Crazy Walls, are the “SJ type”: they go on available facts, proceed step-by-step, building up a big picture slowly, and like to organise everything. Many double acts are made up of an NP and an SJ (Steve Jobs was Apple’s visionary but Steve Wozniak was its sole programmer, for example) and in crime drama, the pairing is very common: Holmes and Watson, Starsky and Hutch, Mulder and Scully, Ruste Cohle and Marty Hart in True Detective.

In dramas, the NP will invariably be the one building or staring at the wall, while the SJ complains that it’s a waste of time — hence Watson’s exasperation with Holmes as he stared at his chart of “rats and low-lifes” in the last series of Sherlock.

“The brilliant wall-building detective is always portrayed as the visionary while the sidekick is a dullard,” says Bullen. “But in the real world, success depends on the two working together, because to solve a problem you need both sets of skills, and it’s rare to find them in the same person. The reason that most crime dramas show their breakthroughs coming from the visionary NP is that most writers are NPs and often feel annoyed by procedure-driven types. NPs think they can run everything better than everyone else but we need more SJs than NPs. If the world were run by visionary detectives with interesting charts, there would be no running water or electricity because no one organised the details.”

In 2003, the US political scientist Michael Barkun noted in his book A Culture of Conspiracy that the idea the US Government was controlled by a secret cabal had in 10 years passed from an extreme minority belief into a fairly mainstream one. A key element of this idea is that the government spies on us, while we can find the truth about it only by decoding appearances. “You are being watched,” goes the voiceover at the start of the sci-fi, Crazy-Walled TV drama Person of Interest. “The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know, because I built it.”

In 2013, 10 years after the publication of Barkun’s book, a survey of British businesses revealed the skill most prized by employers now is the ability to spot patterns and trends in data, in other words, to find meanings in stats and to turn information into knowledge that can be acted upon. If we were to construct a complex chart to find the truth, we would probably find that the secret of the Crazy Wall’s popularity lies between those two trends.

[A Beautiful Mind, a beautiful Crazy Wall]

It may have already reached spoofing-point — in Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s 21 Jump Street (2012) and 22 Jump Street (2014); and more recently in Paddington, where a Crazy Wall is used to track a kidnapped bear; and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, out this month — but if Theresa May and the Serial team have their way, it’s only a matter of time before an interior designer produces a wallcovering inspired by them or an enterprising stationer puts together a nice Crazy Wall kit.

Bring it on, we say: clear a wall in your shed, and bring that stolen bike back with your coloured string and pins. Armchair detectives and conspiracy theorists unite!

You have nothing to lose but your whiteboards.


Everything add up?


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