CSI: Necromancy

Posted: January 15, 2015 in Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , ,

I was talking to Holland via THE INTERNET the other day, and complaining (I pretty much only ever complain when I talk to Holland about things) about things that bother me in these sorts of supernatural adventure mystery shows like Constantine and Detective Grimm.

This thing is, when they have to figure out what the monster is and what they have to do about it, the either 1) look it up in a book (some variations include Grimm: first ask that guy about it, THEN look it up in a book, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: look it up in one of several books), or 2) use some kind of spell or charm that has the exact specific purpose of finding this particular demon/monster/orc and then is never mentioned again.

Both of these bother me, and as a sort of mental or creative exercise, what I would like to do now is brainstorm some ideas based on the following premise: what if you were a forensic scientist (i.e., a person whose job is to extract secrets from the dead, so: necromancer) in a world where the mundane and the supernatural mixed regularly? Like, there were just demons and faeries and trolls and such around, what systems would you use to figure out who committed the crime? What procedures would you put in place?

If you had this stuff in place, could you just basically make a CSI or Law and Order episode, but with monsters? (I am definitely aware that these shows ALSO resort to “one resource that solves all the problems” and “one resource that solves exactly this problem, exactly this one time”, they’re not immune to it, but they also have these multi-purpose but not omni-purpose procedures in place.)

Anyway, I think it’s interesting.


Obviously, there are a lot of tests we can do on human blood to find matches, matches for relatives, blood type, &c. But how do you do blood tests for a vampire? What can you find out from those tests?

Vampires: Vampire blood boils under UV light. Vampire blood otherwise looks exactly like the blood of the last person or last few people whose blood they drank (they don’t have any of their own blood, it’s just other people’s). Relatedly, vampires don’t bleed unless they’ve fed recently, AND they don’t have heartbeats, so if you stab a vampire in the neck, it’s not going to create arterial spray. So, you can’t identify a vampire by their blood, but you can find close associates that way.

Trolls: Troll blood fossilizes under UV light. It will also gradually fossilize on its own when exposed to air, so under some circumstances it can be used to determine how old a crime scene is – i.e., if it’s night time, and the blood spray has already turned to stone, you can presume that at least a day has passed. Alternately, if the crime scene is somewhere shielded from sunlight, you can determine how long it’s been since the murder by how much blood has turned to stone.

Elves: Elf-blood boils when it comes into contact with iron. It doesn’t have DNA the way human blood does, and so can’t be identified to the individual, but! The more quickly the blood boils when it comes in contact with iron, the more “refined” the blood is, which can tell you a little bit about the elf’s class. Further, different lineages of elves (usually these are regional) often have allergies to certain plants – oil of holly, mistletoe, clover, thyme, rosemary, &c. can be used to identify an elf’s lineage. Furthermore, elf nobility is often deeply interbred, which means the highest-ranking nobles typically share multiple allergies.

Demons: Demons when bound in a material form, and the blood will evaporate when that binding ends. So, if you collect blood samples that otherwise appear human, from a suspect that was not apprehended, and those blood samples later sublimate into radioactive-green light, it indicates that your suspect was a demon whose material binding was just released.

Devils: Devil blood typically turns into spiders or scorpions, or some kind of insect when exposed to air. Crime Scene Investigators are encouraged to thoroughly examine crime scenes for large numbers of venomous arthropods, especially those not native to the region.


Magic is a pressing concern in murder because it often leaves little or no trace in its use, but fortunately, there are only a few dozen different kinds of magic that can effectively murder a human or an entity dependent on human-like organs.

Hand of Glory: Can cause heart attacks with no other visible sign. Hands of Glory are highly restricted and licensed; most can be traced through paper trails.

The Terrible Visions of Innumerable Foes: A charm that causes the victim’s drink to turn into illusory scorpions which then sting them to death, usually via intense seizures. The scorpions leave no physical trace on the outside of the body, but the venom is physically manifest and collected in the liver.

Assorted Fire-Based Murders: Magical fire leaves no ash and no traces of accelerant. Victims who have clearly suffered severe burns but with no other traces can be presumed to have been killed by fire. However! It’s worth noting that magical fire will scorch nearby objects like walls or chairs (though it will not ignite them); a victim who has died by fire with no nearby scorch marks might have been killed somewhere else and moved.

Demonic Intervention: Demons, in immaterial forms, can slip into a person’s room at night and begin to draw the life out of them. This typically takes several days, before the victim eventually dies of no immediately apparent cause. Investigators should question the victim’s family to see if they’d been reporting unusually sleepless nights; additionally, the body of a person killed by demonic intervention will cool off much more quickly than an ordinary body, which should be taken into account. The presence of demons will also cause milk to spoil unusually quickly, at a radius commensurate with the demon’s power. Both the vicitim’s home and those of his or her neighbors, should be searched for spoilt milk (this includes new mothers who report that their breast milk has “dried up”).

Certain non-human species can confound traditional means of determining cause of death, and their material differences should be taken into account.

Vampires: Dead vampires can appear very different depending on their age and how recently they’ve fed. Their corpses decay at a rate inversely proportional to their time spent as a vampire (so, a new vampire will decay very quickly, leaving nothing but slimy bones behind; an old one can remain undecayed for months or years); a recently-deceased vampire can look as though it’s been dead for a very few days (if it’s eaten recently) or as if it’s been dead for several weeks (if it has not). There’s a handbook for figuring it out – there’s no easy way to test the difference between a human corpse and a vampire corpse, so corpses are typically carefully-observed for several days after collection.

Trolls: Trolls fossilize when they die (though not typically when they’re simply exposed to sunlight). This means determining cause of death can be very challenging; fossilized troll corpses should be carefully examined for external injures first – bone breaks usually create a much different pattern than rock breaks, so thorough observation can determine if a crack in the stone was pre-or post-mortem. The body should then be carefully chiseled apart to look for the presence of foreign bodies. Trolls can die by poisoning, but usually only from extract of Mistletoe.

Elves: Elf flesh sublimates into light when they die, leaving behind only polished, porcelain bones. Different clades sublimate at different rates, which can help determine time of death; body temperature cannot be used, as all elves maintain a body temperature usually equal to room temperature. One all the flesh has been sublimated, it can be very difficult to determine how old the bones are; they will collect dust at an ordinary rate, though, and this can at least help determine how long they’ve been at a scene.

Certain clades of elf also produce grass and flowers when they die; the growth rate of these plants is ordinary, and can be used to determine time of death.

Others: Many other species sublimate after death, leaving behind insects, slicks of poison or tar, or ash. Some devils, when destroyed, will cause plant life in the immediate vicinity to die. Consult the medical handbook for post-mortem effluvium.


Of course, the most useful tools that an investigator possesses are the skills of necromancy themselves.

Necrolfaction: Necromancers can typically smell and locate the deceased at a great distance (for this reason, corpses are often disposed of in cemeteries or crypts, where the smell of other dead will obscure them). Close up, a necromancer can sometimes smell how long a corpse has been dead, but this is highly subjective to their person experience (i.e., if the necromancer has never smelt a dead goblin, she’d be unlikely to know the difference between a nine-days dead goblin and a ten-days dead one [nine days being the amount of time that the goblin could be brought back to life, if anyone had been bothered; an important distinction in investigating its death]). In the morgue, necromancers always wear formaldehyde smeared across their upper lip to avoid scent-confusion and distraction.

Thanatoptics: Necromancers can, by staring into the eyes of a recently-deceased corpse, see a still image that is some part of what the dead person saw just before they died. Importantly, this is NOT always the exact moment of death, and for this reason (as well as a few others, see below) Thanatoptic testimony is not usually accepted by most courts (i.e., a Necromancer can’t testify who the murderer is because she saw it in the corpse’s eyes; since the image is only one moment out of many, perhaps the corpse was stabbed by the one person, but then died through some other intervention). The mechanism whereby the thanaoptic scene is not well-understood, but it’s common practice to observe one anyway, and the necromancer typically draws it in as much detail as she can.

Other problems with thanatoptics include: 1) it requires a corpse’s eyes to be present and intact. 2) it shows only what is physically visible, so illusions or demonic projections, which can physically or psychically have affected the victim, will not be visible.

Mnemonometry: The necromancer can often extract memories of important people from the dead. This is not limited to the recently deceased, but is also not very precise – it typically only yields around five people to whom the dead person was strongly emotionally connected, and while that is often the murderer, it isn’t always (if you’re killed by a man you’d never met, but you got a good look at his face, you might have a strong emotional connected; if it took you by surprise, or you’d never seen him, then you might not). Furthemore, the memories are delivered to the necromancer in her first dream after the mnemonometric, and the faces that appear in that dream are often strongly affected by the deceased’s opinions of them. Their relationship is usually deeply symbolic and not always obvious. The necromancer will always recognize the faces in that dream again, but often will have difficulty describing or drawing them.

Necromancers for this reason are often required to go with detectives during an investigation (see? A valid reason, unlike in CSI!) to help identify people the victim might have known. For legal reasons, this mnemonometric testimony is almost never accepted in a court of law; for one thing, it can’t be externally verified (indeed, once a corpse has been subjected to memory-extraction, a second necromancer cannot do it again [unlike in thanatoptics]). For another, knowing that a person had a strong emotional connection to another doesn’t necessarily prove anything useful about their relationship


So, you can see how this kind of thing changes the way that we do “catch the monster” TV shows – the problem with constructing a mystery is that we have to create a set of rules that the audience can understand, but that also implicitly create the ways to confound those rules. I don’t think most people know exactly how DNA works, but in CSI if I can explain DNA in such a way that the method whereby I’m tricking the audience is built-in, when I reveal the trickery then it doesn’t make the audience feel betrayed.

I think that’s a big part of the problem that we face when we make shows like this, and the reason why it always ends up being, “look it up in the book”, because at least “the book” is a known-quantity. How do we find it, what do we do with it, &c. Except the mystery is always functionally the same, in which we have a different monster to confound the authorities, unlike in CSI or Law and Order where the bad guy is always sort of ontologically the same, and has to be figured out through relationships and behavior and other details. (Also, you know, in CSI they never have to figure out what the bad guy’s vulnerability is, they just go and arrest him, and the thing is in Detective Grimm it’s not like they figure out the bad guy’s weakness, they just look it up in a book, so why are we even bothering?)

So, let me give you an example, using this stuff I just thought up. Let’s say a mystery begins with a person getting murdered by fire, which cause the authorities to investigate a local sorcerer with whom the victim had a notoriously contentious relationship. The crime scene has no accelerant or ash, which means murder by magic fire. But one of the detectives, looking at the crime scene photos, notices that there’s no scorch marks on the walls, either – magical fire DOES scorch its surroundings, so maybe this body was moved? The detectives manage to figure out where the body was moved from, and at the actual murder scene they DO find traces of accelerant – meaning that the person was killed with regular fire in an attempt to frame up our first guy.

Another thing, consider these Thanatoptics. The necromancer sees a person’s face in her dream, meets the woman in a nightclub during the investigation. The woman denies knowing the victim, but the necromancer is sure she’s lying. Eventually it comes out that the victim was put under a charme de l’amour, which made them fall in love with a stranger – the girl in the club DOESN’T know the victim at all. It turns out, the guy who supplied the charm was someone who’d been scammed by the victim, and as a consequence, was someone to whom the victim had no emotional attachment at all. (Maybe it gives us a good legal question, too – the guy who supplied the charm did it in order to get the victim killed by the girl’s jealous boyfriend; what legal culpability does the person who placed the charm have? What about the person who sold it?)

Honestly, this is the kind of stuff I’d like to see in a TV show about supernatural things; a kind of world where we had to just live in it with monsters and demons and such, and we developed systems for dealing with them, and those systems persist from episode to episode, giving us the kind of strong, foundational base that you need in order to create a good mystery.

  1. braak says:

    Also, I guess I should let everyone know that in my conception of the world, elves are condescending racist assholes. (Which, if we’re being honest, is pretty much what they are in every conception of the world, but I feel like people aren’t very honest about it.)

  2. another raptor in the bushes says:

    Id like to see the Bones style big fancy crime lab filled with high tech magic equipment. Like a magic circle from a digital overhead projector that you can use swipe gestures to rearrange the runes into their proper placement. Thaumatic Spectum lamps that let you see magic radiation eminating from an object in a visual spectrum, and you can cross match it with your archive of known thaumatic signatures (like getting fingerprints but with fancy shifting sparkles and whatever) , a fancy 3 screened display running a hundred thousand iterations of virtual tarot for a subject until their fate can be determined with pinpoint accuracy. Customized talismans built on a 3d printer to ward off specific magical effects.

  3. mbourgon says:

    I would watch the hell out of this (pun!). Have you considered writing this up as a pilot? I’ve been listening to the Children of Tendu podcast and they talk about the guy who came up with the premise for sleepy hollow.

  4. braak says:

    @another raptor: This is good, I like it a lot, but for storytelling purposes I prefer to see it contrasted with some podunk police station somewhere with shitty resources that’s always having to have to cobble new stuff together to get anything done.

    @mbourgon: I only just thought this stuff up today, but now that you mention it, I kind of AM thinking about how to write a TV pilot out of it.

  5. John Jackson says:

    Don’t forget the gorgons and other petrifactors!

    Lots of good ideas, and they remind me a bit of the InCryptid book series by Seanan McGuire. There are several short story ePubs/PDFs on her website that might give you a decent feel for the world. Only three novels so far, and in one they perform an autopsy on a body turned to stone in order to determine if it was a venom-based or glance-based petrifactor.

    I don’t want to derail your ideas at all, they’re really fun. And relying on the book is pretty boring. Most urban fantasy I’ve read or seen rely on books or specifically knowledgable allies that help the “hero” for some as yet unknown reason… or pizza.

    One thing I would point out, that while Constantine does go to the ‘read the book’ thing, it does rely a lot simply on “things that Constantine just knows”.

  6. braak says:

    I stopped watching after the pilot, when John Constantine looks the demon up in the demon encyclopedia. What particularly bothered me about it is that he learned all the details of the demon FROM the book, which confused exactly what it was he used to look the demon up with.

  7. John Jackson says:

    Oh. That is silly. I forgot about that. That pilot episode was pretty horrible.

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