Detective Story #10—Terra Cognita

by TheBloomingIdiot

On days like today—lazy, quiet, empty days that settle like dust in corners—I can’t help but think of my teachers.

Professor Lu began the first lecture of his Business of Detection class by saying, “When you first open for business, you’ll have all the solitude you can bear. Waiting for that first client to come through the door is a unique form of loneliness. No matter how much confidence you have, no matter how carefully you have prepared, it will feel as though your success has become concentrated on the question of whether or not someone will discover a small point in space that only you know exists. You will feel powerless. Which is why this period of solitude and emptiness is the ideal time to start an investigation.”

The students, many of them still settling into their seats, fell into awkward silence. Professor Lu was elderly and during those first few classes many of us assumed (partly due to misinformation spread, with his encouragement, by former students) that he was a bit senile. “Investigating what?” some student asked, trying to conceal her irritation. Professor Lu looked perplexed. Later, after watching him deliver this same lecture many times, I came to see that this was all teacherly theater. After a pause he said: “Your next case, of course.” Slipping into the gentle condescension young people often use with the elderly, another student asked if it didn’t make more sense to wait for a specific client to arrive in order to avoid making assumptions. Professor Lu shrugged, saying, “What are you waiting for, exactly?” Then, in the tone of a man quoting himself, he went on: “All of life hangs together in once piece, everything is connected with everything else. Don’t you already have enough to get started? Don’t you always have enough to get started?”

His method was simple. We should sit in our bare offices and investigate whatever came to mind: “Spread your thoughts as wide as you can and dive as deep as possible.”

“Spread wide and dive deep,” a male student said in a lewd stage whisper.

Professor Lu didn’t acknowledge the joke but he didn’t ignore it either. With the timing of a comedian he held his delivery until the brief spell of tittering subsided. He showed no sign of disapproval or annoyance, only a gentle, subtle generosity that demonstrated his point: a skilled investigator allows for everything. “Start your investigation before your client comes through the door and you’ll already have some clues.”

He was right. There were many empty days when I first went into business, days when I had nothing but myself and the world around me to investigate—so that’s what I did. As if it were no small thing. At first, I stood at my casement windows and fixed my gaze towards Chao’s Restaurant across the street; watching the customers come and go, watching the passers-by pass by. It was too much. So I turned around and looked at my own office. I investigated everything that came to mind; every inch of the room around me. At least that’s how it felt at the time, though I’ve come to see how superficial those investigations actually were. Still, when my first client finally showed up—a middle-aged man trying to remember a pun he had thought of the previous day and then forgotten—I found that I already had some leads.

I also think of Professor Arkpafisto. I still listen to my recordings of her Art of Investigation lectures: “The unknown begins with the known. Think of old maps with large zones of empty space labeled Terra Incognita. Why in the world would a map include uncharted territory? What purpose can this serve? I can’t speak to what those old cartographers were thinking but I believe there is a beauty in marking the transition between the known and the unknown, in conceding that knowledge is bounded on all sides by frontiers of ignorance. Why does this matter to us? Because a detective is an explorer in the terra incognita of other people’s lives. When a new client first steps into your office you know nothing about them or their situation. Which begs the question: why do clients seek the assistance of someone who knows less about their problem than they do? Remember: people don’t hire detectives because of what they know—they hire us because we are comfortable navigating within the unknown. And that comfort only comes with practice.”

So, on empty days like this one, I chart the terra cognita of my office. I do this to prepare and to combat boredom—not only in the moment, but generally. If you see life and the world around you as a mystery, boredom is impossible. The flat, static, familiar objects you believe you already know become clues leading infinitely outward.

For a long time I worked with lists. I picked a spot in the office that felt unfamiliar and stood there, clipboard in hand, while I wrote out an inventory of every item in my office. I reflected on each item, considering where it came from, how long I had owned it, what purpose it served, until I became intrigued by some idea or question. Then I tried to follow that idea or question wherever it might lead, for as long as possible. It was rare for me to work through the entire inventory. Usually I became engrossed by a particular item. On one memorable occasion I got no further than my clipboard. Regardless, the process was time-consuming and resulted in some expensive phone bills and convoluted browser histories. But it worked: my metal filing cabinet lead me to the life of Sir Francis Bacon; my aspidistra directed me to a history of Japanese Bento boxes; the glass ashtray I keep as a decoration (smoking has never been allowed in my building) resulted in my reading a biography of Anton Chekhov; the armrests on my couch took me to the Levant States and the history of French Colonialism, while the upholstery pointed me to special effects in theatre. And, over the years, those same items have taken me in dozens of other directions.

Gradually, my interest shifted, became less literal. The inventory became an annotated list. Then I annotated my annotations. The objects were forgotten in favor of the list itself. Word-by-word, I consulted my reference books, noting each definition and listing synonyms. Using an X-Acto blade like a scalpel, I extracted each word, then sat at my desk and rearranged the cut-out slivers into poems and horoscopes. I made enlargements of each word so I could cut out individual letters to make new words; I made anagrams and palindromes. It wasn’t long before working with text began to feel too abstract and I shifted my focus back to objects. With the graphite pencils I had left over from my art course at the Academy, I made small line drawings on index cards of each object in my office. One day I laid these sketches side by side on my desk and stepped back to look at them. Laid out at random they looked like puzzle pieces and when I began to rearrange the cards to reflect the layout of the room, I saw that I had the beginnings of a map.

So now, on empty days, I draw maps of my office and annotate them. The maps have evolved—are evolving. The first maps were little more than floor plans with lists attached. As I’ve slowly taught myself to draw and paint, what began as an attempt to itemize a room and its contents has become an investigation in itself. With each map, I explore both the contents of the room and my experience of it. With pencil and ink I record the facts of the room and with brush and color I try to capture some of its essence.


Note: Three mottos hang on the walls of my office. The most prominent, which I have already mentioned several times, hangs directly behind me: “Life is a mystery and these are the clues.” The second also hangs on the wall behind me but it is much smaller and less prominently placed.  They are Professor Lu’s words: “It’s all one case.” The third (and longest) motto hangs on a small patch of the opposite side of the room, blocked from view by the office door whenever it is open. This motto, a quotation my brother found and had printed and framed, is just for me:

Mystery is in the morning, and mystery in the night, and the beauty of mystery
is everywhere; but still the truth remains, that mouth and purse must be filled.

—Mark Winsome

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Acknowledgements: For making Nadie’s map a reality, my sincere thanks to Acey Toothypegs, beloved sister and dearest friend. Lovely as it is, this map only hints at her creative talents. Take a moment to explore Acey’s work at