I prefer small groups of people I know well. Crowds worry me – especially when they’re taking themselves too seriously. Whenever I find myself in that scenario, I usually get nervous and start saying true and horrible things about dolphins.
In most respects, I’m a comedian who elects to write books instead of standing on a stage in front of drunk people. Same temperament, though, which means I have this involuntary tendency to make fun of things. You know – institutions, the status quo, hypocrisy. Frankly, I’d rather not be this way. I occasionally think about studying marine biology. I’d enjoy that on some level, I think, though the truth is that I would never be that good at it. I’d achieve nothing as a marine biologist, other than thoroughly alienating a bunch of dolphins, I suppose.
So anyway, we were invited to a party, and we had to go; my partner and I turned up at the appointed hour and – did we know anybody there? No, we did not! Were there any earnest people speaking gravely about serious matters? It was the entire room!
We were received with a cordial lack of interest – this is Boston, not some affable country on the Mediterranean. And there we all were, in a cramped living room, politely eating vegan snacks and pretending to be adults. There’s no music, just light conversation with strangers with whom we had nothing in common. Outside, it was probably snowing. Inside my mind, all I could see was dolphins.
Mostly, it was ladies; everyone in their late twenties, and everyone, apart from myself and my partner, a Harvard librarian. I didn’t recognise a single person. Well no, I knew the bloke who’d invited me, damn his eyes, but everyone else worked in a different library. There was the usual proliferation of cardigans and old-fashioned glasses, though, and all the expected tattoos.
Apart from myself and the host, there was only one other male present. He was tweedy; balding prematurely but dutifully growing out a beard. He kept his eyes lowered throughout the proceedings and seemed to be suffering under the strain of unbearable white guilt, or some sort of chronic embarrassment for being heterosexual. In truth, I don’t know what ailed him. During our brief introduction, he shyly mentioned that he was learning the banjo. I muttered, ‘well, nevermind, just try to keep it to a minimum if you can help it’ (No really, I have no idea why I even open my mouth) and then he retreated into a corner and said not a single word for the rest of the evening.
The crowd did not strongly approve of my colleague, apparently – I mean, the one who’d invited us, curse his black heart. Not sure I approved of him either, right there and then. It had dawned on me that he’d only invited me for a bit of ‘gender-based reinforcement’. He shouldn’t have done that. That was a mistake. You do not bring people like me to dinner parties as reinforcement. I am far too truthful for this type of situation.
Everybody present was clearly his wife’s friend. They didn’t like him, as I mentioned, and thus by extension, weren’t inclined to feel too warmly about me or my partner, either. I must have seemed strange to them, too, with my Australian accent, and my shameful gregariousness. This is Boston, after all; one is only supposed to pretend to smile here.
But there we all were; the ladies ignoring the men and chattering among themselves, and the blokes all too far from each other to get into any laddish topics, like – I don’t know – ‘how to reinforce the patriarchy’, or ‘building a better glass ceiling’.
This all felt a little tense and formal for my liking. I remember the conversation fairly well. The main topics were composting, community gardening, craft, homesteading, pickling vegetables and the making of sourdough bread. Knitting may also have scored a mentioned.
Now, the thing about me is that I had grown up in what polite society calls ‘reduced circumstances’ in various rural parts of Australia, where such topics are not so much recreational hobbies as they are basic life skills. So, stupidly, I spoke up – with warm enthusiasm (because sometimes I can be a fool, after all) when the topic approached the keeping of hens. I’d loved looking after the chickens when I was a kid. I spoke up another time, I think when somebody mentioned baking bread in terracotta pots. Each time, the ladies offered me wintry smiles, then packed up the conversation and moved it off to a ‘safe space’, like ‘growing legumes' or ‘making ginger beer’. Which, ironically, and thanks to those rustic origins I’ve been indecorously boasting of, I knew quite a bit about – much to everyone’s collective annoyance, of course. After the second time, I took the hint and lapsed into the silence that was evidently required.
After nineteen hours of this excruciating ordeal – which according to my watch, lasted only 45 minutes – one lady cleared her throat and announced, in an eerie and alarming tone of theatrical excitement, ‘Okay everybody! Who would like to play … a game!?’
My heart almost stopped, and a shuddering wave of horror fell over me. Judging from the tight hand-squeeze my partner was panicking too.
I mean, you grow up hearing about how the American middle-class is puritanical and repressed on the outside, while meanwhile attending bizarre, secret orgies with their church group, but I guess I’d forgotten all about it somehow. I was almost half-way out the door, making frightened excuses, when I realised that she was referring to a board game.
You know, I think that shocked me even more. A board game? You want to play a board game? I hadn’t played one since I was a kid. I only knew of two – Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit, which, where I grew up at least, weren’t games at all, but gladiator sports that only end when the table gets knocked over and people are rolling around on the carpet, shouting and punching each other in the face.
I could never in my life have predicted what was about to happen. Ten years have passed since that horrible, awkward night and I’m still trying to process it.
The alpha female – the pack leader, as I thought of her – removed the ‘board game’ from a voluminous cloth bag.
I don’t know what the game is called, it has always resisted my Google-Fu. (Update: the game was either ‘Mindtrap’ or ‘Crack the Case’ – thanks, readers!)
So here’s how it worked: someone removes a card from a box and reads a paragraph. Each card has about 200 words written on it, each describing a hypothetical crime scene. The group then must brainstorm together and try to decide what happened. It was a bit like Trivial Pursuit, but for forensic psychologists. I looked warily about the room, wondering which of the ladies would win the fight at the end.
Alright, so now I’ve arrived at the embarrassing part of this story. This is awkward – not at the surface of the story, but through its implications, you see, because as soon as she read the first card, the answer popped instantly into my mind.
“Oh, there’s a stab wound? No sign of a weapon and a puddle of water? Yeah, stabbed to death with a piece of ice. An ice dagger or icicle or something.”
“Huh,” she said, giving me a peculiar look. “You’re right.”
It was a good one to start off with because all the rest were much more difficult and elaborate. The next one – a road at night, fog, a wetlands habitat of some sort. Black and white paint found at the side of a road. And a murder of some sort. What really happened?
“Wetlands you say? Ecoterrorists are protective of wetlands, obviously, so – oh, they probably painted the road, to make people drive off the cliff at night. Something like that.”
She frowned at the card. “How the hell did you know that? You’ve played this before, haven’t you?” “No,” I said, apologetically. “But – why else would there be cans of black or white paint left on the road?”
She read the next card. I guessed it immediately. Nobody else did. The room was quiet, listening and watching me with mounting suspicious. I didn’t notice – I paid no attention whatsoever. I was enthralled.
Over the next hour, the woman read out a card describing a crime scene, and straight-away I guessed the answer. It was the most fun I’d had in as long as I could remember.
Were all parties like this?! What was I doing avoiding them!? It astounded me that someone out there in the world had concocted a game that I was immediately good at – it had never happened to me before. I have never had much interest in forensics or true crime stories, so I was fairly surprised. Also, I was used to board games being a bit boring – you know, until the end, when you’re rolling around on the floor, punching your opponent and shouting about cheating and reading the rules. That night was completely different, however; I’d left my comfort-zone, had a new experience, and you know what? I had a blast!
So anyway, we weren’t invited back.
As my partner explained to me on the drive home, what actually happened was that every crime I solved just made everyone else incrementally more uneasy about me as a person. It also wasn’t too fun for them; I didn’t really give anyone time to get a word in edgewise. Every time an impossible crime scene had been described, it was instantly solved by a manic Australian with some dark and unsettling empathy for the criminal mind.
I was dumbfounded. I thought I’d been behaving myself for a change, but I guess that everyone else simply wanted to have a nice night out – you know, a pleasant chat about baking and community gardening. Nobody had gone along expecting to be unnerved. In short, once again I was guilty of being ‘too much’.
So again, I try to avoid parties.
But in case you’re wondering, yes – this is how I came up with the idea for The Harvard Skull Fiasco. I could see it vividly in my mind; an Australian bloke – possibly from Thargomindah – possessed of an odd talent for wrapping his mind around criminality. I’d have him solving a series of ‘Cozy Mysteries’ in a world that was already familiar to me: Harvard University. I could see him struggling his way through all kinds of colourful encounters with stuffy bureaucrats. An amateur sleuth, running loose at Harvard…
Yes, I must have spent a full two seconds mulling over that specific idea before I threw it away. Harvard University would never listen to a working-class Australian, let alone an amateur detective. Not unless I stripped him of all imagination and gave him an MBA. It just wasn’t plausible.
Still, Harvard might be feel compelled to listen to him if he was, say, the actual jewel thief. And only with intense reluctance, of course. That thought seemed funny to me, actually. I imagined the following scene, straight away.
“Just give us back the skull, Shea.”
“Why not, damn it?!”
“Well, because it’s mine, obviously…”
“How is it yours?!”
“Because I stole it, didn’t I? I mean, first Harvard stole it, and then it was yours for a century or so, but now I’ve stolen it, so technically it’s mine. By the way – this sushi isn’t half bad, is it?”
So, that’s how I conceived of the Blue Bandicoot Saga. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, recently, because I’m writing a short novella, a prequel to the trilogy, set in Brisbane, a few days before Shea flees the country. I’ll give it away to my newsletter subscribers for free, obviously – I don’t know why. I guess I’m really nice.
I am really excited about it actually, and will have some announcements to make soon, but for now I hope this message finds you healthy and well, and that you’re all behaving like responsible jewel thieves, and covering your face with masks.