Created By: StarSword on December 10, 2012 Last Edited By: StarSword on January 22, 2013
Troped

Forensic Accounting

Discovering secrets by tracing their finances and paperwork.

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
OP's note: I wanted to call this Follow the Money since that's a common term for it in dialogue, but that trope name seems to be taken by an unrelated video game trope and the TRS is full. Any cleverer name suggestions are very welcome.

Rolling Updates, Needs a Better Title


"A CPA brought down Al Capone. There's a reason they want you to testify."
-- Sam Axe, "False Flag," Burn Notice

When you're trying to crack a big conspiracy, sometimes it can be hard to get people to open up to you because they're more scared of the conspirators than they are of you. At other times the conspirators are well-connected and have judicial protection for their secrets. But everything needs to be paid for somehow, and tracing the money can often get you the information you need.

Such Forensic Accounting is often viewed as boring and/or headache-inducing by the characters, because it involves a lot of staring at numbers. Despite the name, this can easily be applied to paperwork such as cargo manifests.

Quite common in Crime and Punishment Series of all types. As such, don't bother listing every example from such series; one or two per show will suffice.

See also Intimidating Revenue Service, where this trope is a common tool. Not related to Follow the Money, even though that's a line often used to describe this trope.

Examples:

[[foldercontrol]]

[[folder:Film]]
  • In the film version of V for Vendetta, Detective Inspector Finch decides to go through government tax records while trying to find out details about the terrorist V. This thread of investigation eventually leads to him uncovering sensitive details about the conspiracy the Norsefire party used to bring itself to power. (In the original comic Finch got the information from the FATE supercomputer, which wasn't in the movie.)
    Finch: One thing is true of all governments; the most accurate records are the tax records.
  • The Dark Knight Saga:
    • Batman Begins has Rachel's boss stumble onto the League of Shadows' plan after he discovered a cargo ship had arrived in Gotham's port with one more cargo container than its manifest said it embarked with. Unfortunately a couple of Dirty Cops off him before he is able to tell anyone.
    • A subplot in The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne examines Lau Enterprise's financial records to confirm his suspicions that the company is a front for money laundering. Later, one of Wayne's own accountants figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman, just by taking a closer look at Wayne's records and noticing how much money is going towards research & development projects that never get released. Nothing comes of the latter due to Lucius Fox giving the accountant a reality check.[[note]]To wit, that blackmailing a guy who spends his nights beating the crap out of criminals isn't exactly the best idea.[[/note]]
  • In The Other Guys, Will Ferrell's character is trained as a forensic accountant, which initially makes him a joke to the other cops, but eventually proves to be just what was needed.
  • The film All the President's Men made the phrase "Follow the money" a part of the political lexicon and popular culture. In the film, it is whispered to reporter Bob Woodward by Deep Throat as a way to cut through the lies and deceptions and find the truth about the Watergate scandal. This is a fictionalized line created by the movie, but nevertheless catches the spirit of the process perfectly.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Literature]]
  • Shows up often in the John Putnam Thatcher series by Emma Lathen. Justifiably so, since the Amateur Sleuth in question is an investment banker.
  • Discworld:
  • Comes up a few times in the Vorkosigan Saga.
    • In Komarr, Miles has definite evidence that a plot exists, but no idea what the plot is about, so he calls in some ImpSec analysts to see if they can reverse-engineer the plan from the purchase orders.
    • In The Borders of Infinity Miles has his mercenary accountants infiltrate the enemy prison camp offices in order to facilitate the major operation he has planned there.
  • In Anansi Boys, Charlie Nancy's employer Graham Coates tries to frame Charlie for his own dirty dealings. Charlie is arrested, but released without ever going to trial, because the police are able to correctly deduce from the agency's financial records that Charlie had been framed, and couldn't be responsible.
  • Subverted in a Lord Darcy mystery. Lord Darcy observes that while trying to solve a murder occurring on a train, another detective was led astray because his experience is in this, where conspiracies are easy to form and hard to figure out.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Live Action TV]]
  • One episode of Castle had the team trying to find out who a slain plastic surgeon's last mystery patient was. Castle's solution was to have the D.A. subpoena the hospital's billing records to see who paid for the thing.
  • Stargate SG-1: "Politics" had Senator Kinsey get read into the stargate project after, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he demanded to know what the heck the $7.5 billion item in the Air Force budget labeled "Area 52" was.
  • Used at least twice on Burn Notice.
    • "False Flag" provides the page quote. The Client of the Week was a CPA who was a material witness in an ATF investigation and under a hit by the organized crime group in question.
    • "End Run" had Michael get out from Tyler Brennen's blackmail by having Sam and Barry trace his finances to discover that he was sending his daughter to private school in Switzerland, and convincing Brennen that he'd managed to get an assassin in place to kill her.
  • How often the Law & Order franchise uses this varies by show. The Mothership used it occasionally. SVU uses it only rarely, given it's focused on sex crimes. Criminal Intent used it the most often: since it focused on the Major Case Squad and all of the bad guys were wannabe Chessmasters and Magnificent Bastards, "following the money" was a big given.
    • One slightly weird example comes from a Law & Order episode with detectives Briscoe and Logan where a woman shot a man in an alley. The woman claimed self-defense, because the victim tried to rape her. Briscoe and Logan were gathering facts about the defendant, and discovered that she lived in a ritzy apartment beyond what a mere secretary could afford. Her rent checks came from the construction office of a reputed mobster. Cue Plot Twist.
    • An episode of Law & Order: UK has a Mundane Made Awesome montage of the cast (and a Perky Goth accountant) doing this to nail the villain.
  • The Good Wife: "Waiting for the Knock" has one of Lockhart/Gardner's major clients, drug dealer Lemond Bishop, come under threat of arrest. Their bankruptcy court-appointed trustee, an accountant by training, is brought in to help them figure out what's going on.
  • Variation: The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Up The Long Ladder" has this scene:
    Data: Captain, I have been considering the problem of the missing ship. Although there is no record of a launch to the Ficus sector, which would not be unusual considering the chaos of the early twenty second century, someone had to load that ship.
    Picard: The manifest.
    Data: Yes, sir.
    Picard: There it is. SS Mariposa, loaded 27th November, 2123.
  • In the gimmick TV series Push Nevada the protagonist is an IRS accountant who found discrepancies in the books of a casino.
  • Used frequently in NCIS: Los Angeles (typically Eric's and Nell's job), though one episode put a twist on it: LAPD was only too happy to hand over an investigation to them because the suspect was old-school, using all-paper records instead of easily searchable computers. Boxes and boxes of them.
  • In The Wire tracing dirty money is one of the specialties of detective Lester Freamon, who also instructs his fellow cops in the art. This police work usually meets a stern opposition from the higher-ups, since drug money funds political campaigns, but the few times he can use it, he compares it to a Boom, Headshot.
    Lester: You follow drugs and you find drug addicts and drug dealers, you follow the money and you don't know where the fuck it's gonna take you.
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Tabletop Games]]
  • Call of Cthulhu has an Accounting skill, so the writers of official supplements sometimes threw in a clue that required that skill to find.
    • Campaign Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, adventure "Devil's Canyon". While examining the papers in von Varnstein's office, if one of the PCs makes an Accounting roll he can discover an order for special camera lenses, a clue that tells the PCs that the camera lenses they discover later are important.
    • Campaign The Fungi from Yuggoth
      • Adventure "The Dreamer". While searching Herbert Whitefield's office the PCs can find bills and receipts. If one of them makes an Accounting roll he can determine that Whitefield is deeply in debt and late on all his payments - a clue that gives him a motive in the disappearance of his client Paul LeMond.
      • Adventure "Mountains of the Moon". If the PCs break into the NWI mining office's administration building and Johnathan Harris' office they can find the site's business records. A successful Accounting roll will discover that even though the operation is performing at peak efficiency, it's still losing a phenomenal amount of money. This is an important clue that the purpose of the site is not to make money and that there's something unusual going on.
    • Campaign Cthulhu Now, adventure "The Killer Out Of Space". If a PC makes an Accounting roll while examining the books (accounting records) at Buddy's Best Wrex he realizes that they aren't correct. The books are actually false: Buddy keeps the actual books at home.
    • Campaign Dreamlands, adventure "Pickman's Student". While going through Blakely's papers a PC can make an Accounting Roll. If he succeeds he finds receipts for four of Blakely's paintings, with the addresses of the people who bought them. Since the PCs must find the paintings in order to succeed this is a vitally important clue.
    • Horror on the Orient Express. Successful Accounting rolls are useful twice: while examining Makryat's account books they reveal that he bought and later sold a special train set, and while studying the Gremanchi Doll Work's records they show how the Conte ordered the purchase of the Left Leg and later used it.
  • Rolemaster Shadow World setting, supplement Kingdom of the Desert Jewel. Kohan Traska, the Advisor on Internal Affairs, has a room in the Royal Palace in the Gethryn capital city of Ketaum. Among his papers is a list of the revenue from trade items sent to the capital from the nome (province) of Shii-Magna. If the PCs analyze it, they can discover that the totals have been skewed in the nome's favor. This is because Traska was born in Shii-Magna and is a friend of its Karsha (governor). The GreatKing (ruler) of Gethrya would be interested in this (to say the least).
[[/folder]]

[[folder:Webcomics]] [[/folder]]

[[folder:Real Life]]
  • Forensic accounting is a common tool used by law enforcement agencies in real life, particularly in regards to organized and white-collar crime.
  • As mentioned in the page quote, Al Capone was finally sent to prison for tax evasion rather than booze smuggling or murder.
[[/folder]]

Indices: Crime and Punishment Tropes, Gambit Index, Money Tropes

Community Feedback Replies: 42
  • December 10, 2012
    Antigone3
    Shows up often in the John Putnam Thatcher series by Emma Lathen. Justifiably so, since the Amateur Sleuth in question is an investment banker.
  • December 10, 2012
    Astaroth
    • In the film version of V For Vendetta, Detective Inspector Finch decides to go through government tax records while trying to find out details about the terrorist V. This thread of investigation eventually leads to him uncovering sensitive details about the conspiracy the Norsefire party used to bring itself to power.
    Finch: One thing is true of all governments; the most accurate records are the tax records.
  • December 10, 2012
    StarSword
    ^You're sure that's just the movie and not the comic book?
  • December 10, 2012
    nitrokitty
    • Discworld: After Badass Bureaucrat A.E. Pessimal joins the Watch, his talent for sniffing out dirty laundry makes him feared across the city.
  • December 10, 2012
    Astaroth
    ^^ Definitely in the movie, but it's been so long since I've read the graphic novel that I've forgotten some of the key details and I don't have a copy to check.
  • December 10, 2012
    elwoz
    Also Discworld: in Going Postal, Moist von Lipwig manufactures a gold-plated excuse for Vetinari to do this to the Big Bad. Which is, of course, what Vetinari wanted all along.
  • December 10, 2012
    Bisected8
  • December 10, 2012
    StarSword
    Thanks.

    And just to be on the safe side I've posted a query about the V For Vendetta example to You Know That Show.
  • December 10, 2012
    Xtifr
    Film:

    • In The Other Guys, Will Ferrell's character is trained as a forensic accountant, which initially makes him a joke to the other cops, but eventually proves to be just what was needed.
  • December 11, 2012
    StarSword
    Added. Also added an example from a recent episode of The Good Wife.

    I feel like the description needs a second paragraph, but I'm drawing a blank here. (That one line is the best I can come up with.
  • December 11, 2012
    StarSword
    Just confirmed from Ask The Tropers that the V For Vendetta example was movie-only. In the comic book he got the information on Larkhill's staff from the FATE supercomputer.
  • December 11, 2012
    NateTheGreat
    In the Star Trek The Next Generation episode "Up The Long Ladder," Data was able to do this:
    Data: Captain, I have been considering the problem of the missing ship. Although there is no record of a launch to the Ficus sector, which would not be unusual considering the chaos of the early twenty second century, someone had to load that ship.
    Picard: The manifest.
    Data: Yes, sir.
    Picard: There it is. SS Mariposa, loaded 27th November, 2123.

  • December 11, 2012
    Kernigh
    Does the above Star Trek example fit this trope? It seems that finding a manifest doesn't involve following any money.
  • December 11, 2012
    StarSword
    ^No, but it does involve investigating the paperwork behind a secret, which I'm willing to count to avoid Missing Supertrope Syndrome. Call it a variation in the trope.
  • December 17, 2012
    StarSword
    YKTTW Bump. Still needs some description help and possibly a better title.
  • December 18, 2012
    Arivne
    Tabletop RPG
    • Call Of Cthulhu had an Accounting skill, so the writers of official supplements sometimes threw in a clue that required that skill to find.
      • Campaign Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, adventure "Devil's Canyon". While examining the papers in von Varnstein's office, if one of the PCs makes an Accounting roll he can discover an order for special camera lenses, a clue that tells the PCs that the camera lenses they discover later are important.
      • Campaign The Fungi from Yuggoth
        • Adventure "The Dreamer". While searching Herbert Whitefield's office the PCs can find bills and receipts. If one of them makes an Accounting roll he can determine that Whitefield is deeply in debt and late on all his payments - a clue that gives him a motive in the disappearance of his client Paul LeMond.
        • Adventure "Mountains of the Moon". If the PCs break into the NWI mining office's administration building and Johnathan Harris' office they can find the site's business records. A successful Accounting roll will discover that even though the operation is performing at peak efficiency, it's still losing a phenomenal amount of money. This is an important clue that the purpose of the site is not to make money and that there's something unusual going on.
      • Campaign Cthulhu Now, adventure "The Killer Out Of Space". If a PC makes an Accounting roll while examining the books (accounting records) at Buddy's Best Wrex he realizes that they aren't correct. The books are actually false: Buddy keeps the actual books at home.
      • Campaign Dreamlands, adventure "Pickman's Student". While going through Blakely's papers a PC can make an Accounting Roll. If he succeeds he finds receipts for four of Blakely's paintings, with the addresses of the people who bought them. Since the PCs must find the paintings in order to succeed this is a vitally important clue.
      • Horror on the Orient Express. Successful Accounting rolls are useful twice: while examining Makryat's account books they reveal that he bought and later sold a special train set, and while studying the Gremanchi Doll Work's records they show how the Conte ordered the purchase of the Left Leg and later used it.
  • December 20, 2012
    fulltimeD
    That interaction between Lucius Fox and the accountant in The Dark Knight needs to be the page quote. In a movie full of brilliant one-liners, that one takes the cake.
  • December 20, 2012
    randomsurfer
    In the gimmick TV series Push, Nevada the protagonist is an IRS accountant who found discrepencies in the books of a casino.
  • December 20, 2012
    StarSword
    @Arivne: I don't mind you tweaking my draft, but could you explain why you did it? (Looked to me like you italicized Horror on the Orient Express; I'm guessing it's a show-title-versus-episode-title type thing.)

    @fulltimeD: If it's the line I'm thinking of (the "you think blackmailing Batman is a good idea?" one), that falls more under Bullying A Dragon than forensic accounting.
  • December 20, 2012
    Xtifr
    The term "paper trail" seems like it should be mentioned here somewhere. Might even make a good title?

    Literature:
    • Comes up a few times in the Vorkosigan Saga. For example, in Komarr, Miles has definite evidence that a plot exists, but no idea what the plot is about, so he calls in some ImpSec analysts to see if they can reverse engineer the plan from the purchase orders.
  • December 21, 2012
    Arivne
    ^^ Your guess as to the reason is correct. :)
  • December 23, 2012
    Mokurai
    Not only Miles in the [[Vorkosigan]] saga. His clone-brother Mark decides to become an accountant in order to launch a forensic accounting attack on Jackson's Whole. This has not yet happened in the novels.

    In [[The Borders of Infinity]], Miles has his mercenary accountants infiltrate the enemy prison camp offices in order to facilitate the major operation he has planned there.
  • January 4, 2013
    StarSword
    bump
  • January 4, 2013
    Xtifr
    ^^ Actually, Mark wants to make money to make to develop new technologies that will kill the cloned-body transplant business. I really don't think he's an example. Borders of Infinity might fit, though (although I don't remember that detail--but it's been a while since I read it).
  • January 10, 2013
    oneuglybunny
    Forensic Accounting sounds fine to me. [waii]

    One possible example from Live Television: a Law & Order episode with detectives Briscoe and Logan, where a woman shot a man in an alley. The woman claimed self-defense, because the victim tried to rape her. Briscoe and Logan were gathering facts about the defendant, and discovered that she lived in a ritzy apartment beyond what a mere secretary could afford. Her rent checks came from the construction office of a reputed mobster. A Plot Twist ensued.
  • January 18, 2013
    elwoz
    Bump; Star Sword, are you still on top of this?
  • January 21, 2013
    Arivne
    Tabletop Games
    • Rolemaster Shadow World setting, supplement Kingdom of the Desert Jewel. Kohan Traska, the Advisor on Internal Affairs, has a room in the Royal Palace in the Gethryn capital city of Ketaum. Among his papers is a list of the revenue from trade items sent to the capital from the nome (province) of Shii-Magna. If the PCs analyze it, they can discover that the totals have been skewed in the nome's favor. This is because Traska was born in Shii-Magna and is a friend of its Karsha (governor). The GreatKing (ruler) of Gethrya would be interested in this (to say the least).
  • January 21, 2013
    TrollBrutal
    Follow the money is such a good name, (Watergate is the trope namer, i think) I tried to write this example below some time ago, only to discover it was "wasted" on a video game trope.

    • In The Wire tracing dirty money is one of the specialties of detective Lester Freamon, who also instructs his fellow cops in the art. This police work usually meets a stern opposition from the higher-ups, since drug money funds political campaigns, but the few times he can use it, he compares it to a Boom Headshot.
      Lester: You follow drugs and you find drug addicts and drug dealers, you follow the money and you don't know where the fuck it's gonna take you

    ETA:

    • The film All The Presidents Men made the phrase "Follow the money" a part of the political lexicon and popular culture. In the film, it is whispered to reporter Bob Woodward by Deep Throat as a way to cut through the lies and deceptions and find the truth about the Watergate scandal. This is a fictionalized line created by the movie, it nevertheless catches the spirit of the process perfectly.

    See also Intimidating Revenue Service, where this trope is a common tool.
  • January 22, 2013
    StarSword
    @elwoz: Sorry, I've been paying more attention to the Mile Long Ship trope family lately.
  • January 22, 2013
    StarSword
    Added new examples, and I note we've basically satisfied the Three Rules Of Three and have five hats. I'll plan on launching this evening.
  • January 22, 2013
    StarSword
    Actually, before I do, anyone know of any other indexes I can use?
  • January 22, 2013
    Bisected8
  • January 22, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Added Gambit Index (already had the other two).
  • January 22, 2013
    marcoasalazarm
    I think some modification needs be done to the 'Law and Order' entry. An example is good, but there needs to be mentioned that all the shows use the trope on different amounts. The Mothership used it occasionally, SVU uses it once in a blue moon (comparatively speaking) and Criminal Intent had it used the most often (considering it focused on the Major Case Squad and all of the bad guys were wanna-be Chessmasters and Magnificent Bastards, 'following the money' was a big given).
  • January 22, 2013
    StarSword
    How's it look now? (Feel free to modify if you don't like it.)
  • January 22, 2013
    Desertopa
    In Anansi Boys, Charlie Nancy's employer Graham Coates tries to frame Charlie for his own dirty dealings. Charlie is arrested, but released without ever going to trial, because the police are able to correctly deduce from the agency's financial records that Charlie had been framed, and couldn't be responsible.
  • January 22, 2013
    marcoasalazarm
    ^ Re:starsword: Awesome.

    Thanks for using my post near-verbatim, man. It's... well, it means a lot, as a rookie Troper.
  • January 22, 2013
    StarSword
    More Google Ad Big Brother Is Watching-ness. I'm getting banner ads for accounting degrees.

    @Desertopa: Added.

    @marcoasalazarm: NP, and welcome aboard.
  • January 22, 2013
    NotSoBadassLongcoat
    HAT! We should launch it.
  • January 22, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Doing it after my class lets out.
  • January 22, 2013
    Goldfritha
    • In a Lord Darcy mystery, Lord Darcy observes that while trying to solve a murder occuring on a train, another detective was led astray because his experience is in this, where conspiracies are easy to form and hard to figure out.
  • January 22, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Example added, and trope launched.

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=f95i614b71wpjf39vqqqto3q&trope=ForensicAccounting