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Criminal Mind Games

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"I pull that trigger two seconds earlier and Wallenberg would be here to see his kid play. Instead, I got some dead man robbing jewelry stores and sending me haikus."
Agent Fox Mulder,note  The X-Files, "Young at Heart"

The detectives are on the heels of a very unbalanced criminal who has left them a trail of clues to follow — these clues aren't meant to cover the criminal's tracks, but, for the criminal's (and the audience's) entertainment, are usually intended to be a test of their intellect, or their investigatory skills, as though the criminal wants to see if the detectives are worthy of catching him.

Not only do the detectives oblige the nutter and follow his breadcrumb trail, they tend to give up all conventional routes of investigation. Usually they are the minutest step behind their quarry right until the end. Sometimes the criminal wishes to distract or trap the detectives, sometimes they want them to uncover some other truth along the way, but usually they're just being a real smartass. Sometimes the clues are hidden in the Serial Killer's Calling Card or in its gruesome souvenirs. There is often a Breaking Speech (or "The Reason You Suck" Speech) and a Kirk Summation (or "No More Holding Back" Speech) exchange between The Protagonist and antagonist some time before the climax.

The criminal will often warn the investigators that there will be consequence for cheating on the game.

Can overlap with Absurdly High-Stakes Game and a Life-or-Death Question.

These people often enjoy wordplay. Anagrams abound, as well as sentences with a carefully designed second meaning, and proper nouns which are conveniently also real words. ("Wait a minute, does he mean Jim Trashcompacter?")

See also Linked List Clue Methodology for a number of non-(or at least less) criminal scavenger hunts. Compare The Walrus Was Paul. Also compare Writing About Your Crime.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Case Closed:
    • A number of episodes of (especially the longer TV specials) involve some criminal leaving a trail of clues—either because they secretly want to be caught and stopped, or because they're just Ax-Crazy. For whatever reason, many of these seem to involve bombs.
    • One TV special had Conan and Heiji running all over a baseball stadium to try to catch a would-be stadium bomber who sent them clues via abandoned mobile phones with a specific time limit to find the next one.
    • "Trembling Metropolitan Police Headquarters: 12 Million Hostages" involved a mad bomber who sent a clue to his next target to the timer screen of his current bomb…seconds before its detonation.
    • A long manga story set in London had a bomber leaving a trail of Sherlock-Holmes-themed clues all over London for Conan to chase down in order to stop his next bombing.
  • Subverted in Death Note: the master detective L expects Kira to be leaving messages — but Kira is just as smart as L is, so only leaves red herrings to throw L off the scent, or meaningless clues to waste his time. And the main purpose of leaving the messages was in fact for Kira to test the limits of the Death Note's power. Leaving false clues for L was just a side benefit.
  • In Code Geass, Lelouch invokes this in the Brittanian Army by publicly asking Jeremiah Gottwald if he really wants people to find out about "Orange". He then Geasses Jeremiah into letting him escape, making it look like this "Orange" was a threat that Jeremiah caved to. Truth is that "Orange" is meaningless, and Jeremiah is innocent of any crimes or conspiracy by Brittanian law, but this still disgraces him and gets him investigated.
  • Invoked and played with on Cat's Eye: By openly announcing in advance which item they will steal, sometimes with a riddle and sometimes leaving behind a clue of what they will steal next after they stole something, the sisters occasionally con the cops into doing what they think are the better measures to safeguard an item... which instead leaves it wide open for stealing. Most of the time, though, they are showing off.
  • During the first night of the culture festival in Kaguya-sama: Love Is War, a Phantom Thief steals a bunch of balloon's from class 2-B and later leaves behind a note with some clocks on it that nobody can make heads or tails of. Fujiwara, who has long since been established as a lover of games and riddles, spends most of the second day trying to figure out it's meaning and catch the thief. It later turns out that the clocks didn't have any meaning whatsoever. Shirogane just threw a bunch of meaningless symbols together in the hopes that she would be distracted long enough for him to get his Grand Romantic Gesture for Kaguya ready.
  • William of Moriarty the Patriot's favorite kind of game.
    • In A Study in "S", William frames Sherlock for murder to see if can wriggle his way out and find the true culprit.
    • In A Scandal in the British Empire, he expects Sherlock to confront of The Lord of Crime and sets up an arrangement to give Sherlock proof of his identity, which Sherlock burns.
    • In The Phantom of Whitechapel, he leaves the bodies of the Jack the Ripper killers behind and obviously murdered to see what Sherlock does about it.
    • In The Merchant of London, he mentions that he left the legal records about the childhood trial behind to see if Sherlock would hunt them down and read through them, although Sherlock skipped that lead.

    Comic Books 
  • In all incarnations of Batman, this is The Riddler's modus operandi; other Batman villains, like The Joker, have also done it.
    • Lampshaded during the Villain Team-Up in Batman: The Movie, where the Riddler's colleagues eventually grow tired of him compromising their plans by leaving clues that they know Bats will inevitably solve. They try to stop him from doing so, but he fervently declares that he just can't resist and proceeds to leave more clues that eventually lead to their defeat.
      • Ironically, he's also the only one in that film who comes close to successfully killing Batman — not once but twice!
    • Interestingly, an early Batman story showed that the Riddler's insanity is such that he is physically incapable of committing a crime unless he leaves a clue. (His father used to beat him when he lied ... so once dear old Dad was out of the way and only the consequential neuroses were left, he learned to tell the truth in extremely sneaky ways to get around them.)
    • One Batman Adventures comic set in the DC Animated Universe had Batman fail to decipher the Riddler's clues; he stumbled upon the crime because he was following three other crooks who had the same target. When the Riddler realizes this, he doesn't care that he's going to jail because as far as he's concerned, he won.
    • As the series has progressed, more and more authors have focused on the mental illness aspect of Riddler's clue-leaving, giving him a severe case of OCD (which explains his compulsion to give puzzles) and narcissistic personality disorder (he has to prove that he's smarter than Batman no matter what). In one story, he tries to subvert the problem by leaving simple messages rather than riddles...but Batman discovers that Nygma subconsciously left hints to his capers in the notes that even the criminal wasn't aware of. In other words, Riddler's virtually powerless to keep himself from giving riddles. As he nearly tearfully explained in that comic as he begged Batman to send him to Arkham for help: "...I might actually be crazy..."
    • Subverted by another Batman villain, the Cluemaster, a bargain-bin Riddler type with a similar modus operandi.
      • The Cluemaster was caught thanks to his own clues and went to prison, an experience which cured him - of leaving clues. Once free, he resumed his criminal activities without bothering to leave clues any more. As Robin says, "Gee, thanks Arkham!"
      • Unfortunately for him, his daughter, Stephanie Brown, was angry at him for trying this while claiming to be reformed, and became The Spoiler, leaving clues to her father's crimes for Batman. So that's what the hell her name means.
      • In his first re-appearance, the Cluemaster had hired some goons who, knowing their boss's old M.O., left clues behind anyway. And being stupid goons, the clues were really obvious, too.
    • The Riddler and his compulsions were parodied Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink. The title character, a diligent and high-minded psychiatrist, managed to cure Riddler Expy "The Quizzler" of his self-destructive obsessive-compulsive tendencies — turning him into a really dangerous criminal mastermind.
  • Issue #6 of Untold Tales of Spider-Man had Spidey and the Human Torch working together to stop The Wizard, who left logic-based puzzles as clues to his next caper. The crime spree was The Wizard's attempt to prove that he was smarter than the Torch, but Spider-Man solved them all fairly easily.
  • Bedlam is about Fillmore Press, who was once the mass-murdering psychopath Madder Red. Reformed and largely stable after a stint in a mental hospital, he hears about a string of murders that have the police baffled and realizes that he knows the killer's next move and why he's doing it in the first place. He calls in a tip to the police on a burner phone, profiling the killer, describing his M.O., and doing everything he can to help the investigation along. Sadly, his analysis is so in-depth that the cops think he's the killer, with one of them even comparing the call to Son of Sam's letters.
  • From Hell, being based on a real-life example of this behavior, includes the trope.
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1: Right before his execution Doctor Psycho sends a note to Steve Trevor that taunts that he's going to kill Trevor after his execution and gives clues as to when and how. Even with this note he nearly succeeds in killing Steve, with Diana's speed being the only thing that saves him from the disguised explosive device when it goes off right on his desk.

  • Along Came a Spider: "Gary Soneji" has a plan to kidnap a little girl as step one of a plan to kidnap the son of the Russian President, who is a classmate of hers and drags Alex Cross around with a chain of clues. Justified by the fact Someji is a massive Attention Whore seeking Fame Through Infamy - it's even extremely heavily implied that he got the idea to do his scheme from seeing the massive media circus around the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping. Soneji only has enough time to figure out that his kidnapping scheme only worked because corrupt Secret Service agents allowed it so they could profit from it (and thus not only this whole mess is gonna remain secret but the specific target he wanted for his endgame remains out of reach) and he's essentially the Disc-One Final Boss of the story before he gets a chest full of buckshot.
  • Batman Forever features the Riddler, who naturally toys with Bruce Wayne's mind by sending him riddles in elaborate packages. During the climax of the film, he even prevents Two-Face from executing Bruce Wayne, instead leaving him with the final riddle after kidnapping Dr. Meridian. Once Bruce recovers, he and Alfred work together to try to figure out what the Riddler's deal is, first by trying to see what connection the four riddles' answers (a clock, a match, chess pawns, vowels) have before they notice that each riddle mentions a number (13, 1, 8, 5). Using number-to-letter substitution yields M-A-H-E, but then Bruce puts the middle two numbers together to get 18 instead. That produces the letters M-R-E...Mr. E...mystery...enigma...E. Nygma. Edward Nygma.
  • Se7en, although that was all part of a Thanatos Gambit.
  • In the movie I, Robot, the "murder" victim does this, the initial clue being his own "murder", ostensibly to reveal his secret to the hero without tipping off a Three Laws-Compliant AI with Sinister Surveillance in time to prevent a Zeroth Law Rebellion. (Yeah, the movie did something clever and subversive.)
  • In the Line of Fire: Leary becomes obsessed with Horrigan on account of his history as one of President Kennedy's bodyguards, regularly calling him to talk about his personal philosophies and motives, and leaving him clues so he can figure out when and how Leary plans to kill the new President.
  • Subverted in The Watcher. Oh sure, the Serial Killer would like to get the detective to play a game with him, but the detective doesn't care in part because It's Personal
  • V was this in V for Vendetta to the inspectors (Nose, not Finger). He actually used the term, but in a more insulting/literal reference to Creedy.
  • The Abominable Dr. Phibes accidentally dropped a medallion with some Hebrew lettering at the scene of one of his crimes, which tipped the police off to the Old Testament theme of his serial killing.
  • In Beverly Hills Cop II, this is the Big Bad's apparent modus operandi, by leaving so-called "alphabet clues" at the scene of each of his daring crimes. It turns out to be a subversion, as the clues are designed to distract the By The Book Cops' attention and set up a Red Herring scapegoat while the real mastermind escapes.
  • John "Jigsaw" Kramer does this in Saw II, having abducted Eric Matthews' son Daniel and left him with numerous other victims — including Amanda Young, a previous survivor of his games — in a house filled with death traps, and is recording the whole thing, which becomes useful when Eric and a SWAT team show up to arrest him. John says the son will be returned alive and safe if Eric just has a conversation with him, but the house is also filling with nerve gas that will kill everyone inside in two hours. Daniel is locked in a safe in John's lair, and the recordings were already made, unlike the team's impression that it was live. Everyone other victim in the house is already dead apart from Amanda, and when Eric shows up to the house thinking he'll find Daniel, Amanda reveals that she's John's apprentice, and the whole thing was a revenge scheme of hers because Eric once framed her for a crime and ruined her life. It ends with Amanda leaving him to die in the Bathroom from the first film.
  • The Bone Collector (originally a book) has a killer who leaves clues at each murder scene relating to his next crime. Upon further investigation, it turns out that he has been killing and leaving clues for ages but no one was smart enough to notice.
  • Subverted in Die Hard with a Vengeance with "Simon" playing a Simon-Says type game with the main character through the first half of the movie in order to prevent a bomb from being detonated. Subverted in that it's shown to simply be a way to get McClane (and the entire NYPD) out of the way while Simon pulls off a heist of the federal reserve.
  • In Hellraiser: Inferno, the Engineer serial killer is constantly leaving messages to Detective Joseph Thorne as he kills the people around him and leaves behind the dissected fingers of his child victim. This is because Joseph is actually both the cop and the murderer. "Hunt the Engineer and the Engineer hunts you".
  • The killer in Anamorph hides an anamorph in each crime scene that depicts the next one. He also leaves messages for Aubrey.
  • K-20: Legend of the Mask: K-20 is a Phantom Thief who is cocky enough to send messages of what he is going to steal and challenges the Akechi, the famous detective to catch him. Subverted when it is revealed that Akechi is K-20. He sent the messages so that his Akechi persona would be brought into protect against the crime and he would be at the centre of any security around his targets.
  • In The Snowman (2017), Harry Hole declares that the killer is playing games with them - although that element, while prominent in the trailers, was apparently cut down by a significant degree as a result of the movie's legendarily Troubled Production.
  • Knight Moves: The killer in the film is engaging in a particularly convoluted mind game with the cops and the chessmaster hero where he kills various women on different locations on the island, each one corresponding to a chess move if you map it out onto a chess board.
  • Switchback: The killer started writing LaCrosse taunting letters when he began hunting him, along with leaving clues and later kidnapping LaCrosse's son. In his last letter, he left clues on how to catch him that take a long time for LaCrosse to figure out.
  • The Batman (2022): The Riddler in this version of the Batman mythos is a particularly manipulative and cruel take on the character. One of his first riddles starts with providing a lengthy ciphered document and a clue for a few letters using a very dark pun about the mayor, who he murdered. Then, when those letters are highlighted on the ciphered document, it forms the word DRIVE, leading to the mayor's garage of fancy cars, where a USB drive is tied to the mayor's thumb with photos of the mayor with a mysterious girl outside a Mob-owned club - and a program that uses Gordon's email to send them to all of Gotham's journalistic outlets, and keeping them so distracted dealing with all this stuff that they don't think to ask where the photos were taken from, which would have led them directly to his hideout. Later riddles are similarly elaborate, and macabre puns keep making appearances. In an unusual twist, the riddles aren't there to see if Batman is worthy of catching him; it's because he thinks Batman is a kindred spirit and is, in a messed-up kind of way, trying to connect with him.

  • Older Than Television: Sherlock Holmes himself had to deal with his share of these villains. This seems to be particularly common for movie and video game versions of Holmes, and less so in the Canon. In particular, he's been sent on scavenger hunts through famous sites in London by thieves twice, at least — in the Infocom text adventure The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, and in the more recent Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis. Ironically, Moriarty is the villain and riddler of the former, not the latter.
  • Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot came up against a Criminal Mind Games villain or so it seemed in The ABC Murders, where the killer sent him mocking letters before each of the murders.
  • Double-subverted in John Buchan's Richard Hannay novel The Three Hostages. The villain leaves a riddle for the police, in the form of a six-line poem. It's deliberately uncrackable, designed only as a distraction. But, possibly subconsciously, he laces the riddle with subtle clues, which the heroes crack thanks to a number of remarkably fortuitous encounters and observations.
  • In Blood Work, the "Code Killer" leaves the number sequence "903 472 568" at his crime scenes as a taunting hint. The solution? All the decimal digits are represented except 1, and his real name is Noone ("No one").
  • G. K. Chesterton's very first Father Brown mystery, The Blue Cross subverted this in two ways: first because the clues themselves were meaningless, and second that it wasn't the criminal leaving them. Played straight in the later The Insoluble Problem, where the villain sets up a fake murder laced with contradictory clues to distract the detectives while he carries out a jewel robbery elsewhere.
  • 87th Precinct: This is the M.O. of recurring villain the Deaf Man in Ed McBain's novels. There is a slight aversion in that while the Deaf Man sends taunting clues to the police, they seldom fully decipher them and are more likely to stop his crimes by accident than design.
  • Used by Melisande in Kushiel's Chosen. She thinks of her attempt to gain control of Terre d'Ange as a game and Phedre as her Worthy Opponent, and so sends Phedre a hint to start her search.
  • Subverted in Jorge Luis Borges' Death and the Compass. Lonnrot thinks he's oh-so-clever for figuring out there'll be four cabalistic assassinations, not just three... It turns out the first one was an accident, and the second and third were rigged in order to get Lonnrot - who has a very romanticized view of detective work - to come to that conclusion, and show up in a location where his nemesis Red Scharlach can off him.
    • Deliberately homaged in The Name of the Rose, right down to the perpetrator being literally named Jorge of Burgos.
  • Played with in Red Dragon, where the police intercept a fan letter the Serial Killer sent to his idol, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter begins corresponding with him in the sensationalist newspaper The Tattler with a cryptic message, and as the FBI aren't able to decipher it in time they decided to let go ahead as it's their only means of contacting him, and when they finally deciphered it they could take Lecter's place. Unfortunately, it wasn't the Dragon they were playing mind games with - Lecter's message told the Dragon the hero and his family's home address, and said he should kill them all.
  • Another Note: The entire book is about trying to solve a very, very, difficult one of these. The killer, Beyond Birthday, left several clues leading from one murder to the next. None of the investigating officers could even start to decipher B's clues. Only Naomi Misora — under L's guidance — and an "unprivate" detective named Ryuzaki could help. The clues lead Naomi Misora in person to find each and every one of these clues to make sure the effort didn't go to waste. Ryuzaki ends up doing most of the work. He turns out to be the killer who placed the clues there in the first place.
  • The Bone Collector: (described under Film).

    Live-Action TV 
  • Awaken: Before killing his victims the serial killer sends warning letters to Ji-wook, using riddles and codes to describe the time, place and method of each murder.
  • Played with in Bones. Serial killer Howard Epps is already in prison when he first appears, but he enjoys finding ways to toy with the FBI anyway. In his second episode, he works with an accomplice on the outside to commit copycat crimes, for the sole purpose of making the FBI (and Dr Brennan in particular) consult him on the case. He very purposefully leaves a trail of clues for the FBI to follow, most of which can’t be understood without talking to him and listening to the hints he drops into conversation.
  • Mouse (2021): Jae-hoon leaves a message for Mu-chi at a murder scene then phones him after a press conference, both times to taunt him. Then he gives Mu-chi a challenge: figure out how Jae-hoon chooses his victims, and the child he's kidnapped will be released. Fail, and the child will die. Mu-chi answers the question correctly... and is rewarded by seeing his brother murdered on live TV. And Jae-hoon kills the child anyway.
  • Subverted in Homicide: Life on the Street in the episode "Sniper". A serial killer draws a hangman game in chalk at the scene of each crime, with another letter filled in each time. The detectives hope that if they can guess the word, they can solve the crime. It turns out that the word is "eromitlab," a nonsense word — Baltimore backwards. The killer is simply crazy. There's nothing more to it than that.
  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: though the police didn't give up on traditional methods entirely. In fact, by using traditional methods, they're able to catch the perp before he can complete his intended killings, and even manage to save a victim without stooping to his level.
    • Another episode had a copycat serial killer taunt the squad with puzzles just as the original killer had.
  • Happens fairly often on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Goren is particularly good at figuring these out.
    • The most significant example is one that's targeted directly at Goren. The perpetrator finds news articles about previous cases Goren had worked and uses details from those to point Goren in the direction of another suspect. Goren figures it out because it's just a little too specific to his abilities in places.
    • Goren's nemesis, Nicole Wallace, often engages in these, especially when she knows he's on the case.
  • CSI: Occurs with vastly more complex clues than usual.
    • For starters, it happened with the following: Paul Millander (prop artist who enjoyed taunting Grissom), the Blue Paint Killer (likewise), Nicky's kidnapper at the end of Season 5 (who did it to prove a point), and the Miniature Killer (who only left clues because of an involuntary urge due to psychosis). Arguably, the Strip Strangler was amused at the police and FBI's feeble attempts at capture, but was meticulously neat and planted fake evidence rather than leave any.
  • NUMB3RS: Usually the clues require advanced mathematics to unravel, since the show's Aesop is that Math is useful and mathematicians are like superheroes — with math.
    • "The Janus List" took this to ridiculous extremes by having a spy intentionally set up an extremely convoluted series of complicated codes and puzzles that Charlie will have to solve to get the eponymous list. It's essentially a built-in test; if Charlie is able to get through all of the layers to access the information, then he's proven himself worthy to receive it. He does, although one of the pieces ends up being figured out by Don.
  • Charmed: A group of demons perpetrates a series of attacks using an Alice in Wonderland theme. The justification is that the Charmed sisters have recently faked their own death, and the demons have a theory that they are still alive and won't be able to resist investigating murders if there's a fairytale theme to give it that extra captivating interest.
  • In the season 3 finale of Psych Shawn faces the Yin-Yang Killer, who only rarely resurfaces to screw with star cops — by kidnapping a victim and leaving stopwatches and clues, with the victim dying when the star cop fails to solve the clues in time. When the Yin-Yang killer targets Shawn, Shawn gets caught up in the killer's clues, and then he realizes that is what the killer wants and pretends to give up. Eventually the killer, pissed off that Shawn isn't playing the game, comes gunning for him, and is revealed to be a very crazy-looking Ally Sheedy.
  • MacGyver (1985) had an escaped criminal foe who went as far as to call him with math equations that would yield a clue when solved.
  • Variant: the Ghostwriter episode "A Crime of Two Cities". A cross-Atlantic trio of kidnappers is led by a nutty mastermind who insists that they commit their crimes (and communicate with each other) through trick sentences and anagrams, all of which mock their intended victim. Unlike the usual trope, the leader isn't testing the heroes. She's doing it because she's arrogant, and wants to show off how the heroes are incapable of figuring out her clever clues.
  • Dexter:
    • Dexter himself does this to mislead the agents investigating his own murders. In a twist, his attempt to mislead actually helps the FBI agent to narrow down the investigation to somebody within the police department. This is because Dexter sends them a 'manifesto' for his crimes that's all over the map, mixing literary references with social commentary, religious diatribes, and crediting both Julius Caesar and Gandhi as inspirations. It's so scattershot that Agent Lundy deduces that the perpetrator has to be personally familiar with police profiling and was hoping to send them on a wild goose chase.
    • Subverted when The Ice Truck Killer sends clues to the police, but they're really meant only for Dexter.
  • Often done in The Pretender by Jarod to the Centre operatives chasing him both to mock them and to leave clues that their superiors were up to shenanigans behind their backs. Done more often in the first couple of seasons... later on, Jarod simply calls them to tip them off about their employer's latest wacky hijinx.
  • Criminal Minds:
    • In "The Fisher King", an unsub mostly just wanted to send them on a quest. Some of the team worked on it like a normal case, some of the team followed the breadcrumbs. The trail of breadcrumbs solved the case, and not following the rules nearly got one of the BAU killed.
      The Fisher King: [confronting Elle Greenaway in her home with a gun after she breaks his one rule of "only the BAU team must do this quest" after she does a press conference] ONE RULE! THERE WAS ONLY ONE RULE! I TOLD YOU THAT THIS WAS IMPORTANT! [shoots Elle, cut to cliffhanger]
    • In "Masterpiece", the clues lead to a trap. Luckily, they figure that part out in time.
    • The unsub in "Unfinished Business" who seems to be partly based on the Zodiac Killer and on the BTK killer Dennis Rader, who also left letters. The only Zodiac thing was that Rader's letters just taunted the police; he never left cryptic clues in them, though he would announce that he had chosen his next victim.
  • Bones did this with serial killer Howard Epps. It also had the protagonists prepared to pursue far more elaborate puzzles than the killer was actually leaving them, before one of their number realizes they've "endowed" him with brains he doesn't have.
  • One episode of Due South had this. Although Ray subverted it, when he admitted to Fraser that he was never good at solving puzzles, knowing that the villain had a mike in the car, intending to lull him into a false sense of security.
  • In Burn Notice, Gilroy leaves clues about his identity to Michael this way. To quote Television Without Pity, "either someone is setting up Mason Gilroy, or Mason Gilroy thinks he's the fucking Riddler."
  • Sherlock does this in the first season finale, "The Great Game." In a somewhat unique instance, the perpetrator is using unsolved cases as the bait for Sherlock, forcing him to dig up the truth so that his victims won't be killed.
  • Fox Mulder of The X-Files tends to get into these with reasonably human Monsters of the Week, such as John Irvin Barnett from "Young at Heart", Mulder's ex-mentor from "Grotesque", Robert Modell a.k.a. "Pusher", and Modell's even eviler twin from "Kitsunegari".
    • Prior to his assignment to the X-Files, Mulder was a criminal profile and wrote the profile that got one man convicted to a death sentence. When the man claims he's psychic and can help the police find the kidnapped victims of the week, Mulder decidedly does not believe his claim, pointing out that this is the kind of game the convict would try and pull. Conversely, Scully starts believing the guy.
  • The Murdoch Mysteries episode "Murdoch in Toyland", in which Murdoch is left a series of talking dolls designed to give him just enough clues to reach the next one, and also to make him overthink things and miss more blatant clues. Murdoch's nemesis escapes, and returns to torment him some more by framing his love Dr. Ogden as a murderer. He also claims human love fascinates him and that he wants to see whether he could give up his life for hers.
  • In the Starsky & Hutch episode "Bloodbath", Starsky is snatched by a cult whose psychotic leader is in prison; he gives Hutch just enough cryptic clues to track Starsky down in the nick of time.
  • Elementary has the mysterious 'M' leaving rambling notes for the police, using letters cut out from newspapers of course. As Sherlock correctly guesses this is really a ruse to follow the police into thinking he's something he's not.
  • In the Castle two-parter Tick, Tick and Boom, the team and an FBI profiler hunt a killer who is obsessed with Nikki Heat, the Beckett analogue in Castle's books, and leaves clues to prove he can outsmart her.
    • Another episode has a sniper leave behind paper dolls cut from images of paintings that point toward his next target.
  • Parodied on That Mitchell and Webb Look with the "Identity Killer", a serial killer whose MO is to leave multiple forms of identification at the scene of each crime. Including two separate utility bills, and a T-shirt being worn by the victim with his photo on it and the text "I WAS KILLED BY (photo)". The police still can't catch him.
  • One episode of The Nanny did this with a humorous bent. C.C.'s dog Chester is kidnapped in the park, and the crooks call the Sheffield residence with a demand of $20,000. C.C. turns the tables by going on television and offering the ransom as a reward to anyone who can capture the criminals. Fran decides that she and Val can solve the crime by using this trope—she overheard an ice cream truck playing "The Way We Were" in the background of the phone call, which points to Greenwich Village, and then notices a school on the truck's route, recalling hearing a bell ringing in the message, too. Of course, she and Val end up getting caught too, and the dognapppers put Mr. Sheffield through a series of bizarre instructions (such as looking for a key in the bottom of a YMCA's swimming pool) before he can deliver the money.
  • In the Shoestring episode "Mocking Bird," a mugger calls Radio West after each attack to leave taunting messages about Eddie's inability to catch him.
  • Played with in one episode of NCIS. Their victim, a sailor, is found with a business card in his pocket with the blood of a murdered prostitute and a taunt that there are more murders to come. The team gears up to play games, and... it turns out the dead sailor WAS the killer. The original killer. He'd intended to become a police-taunting Serial Killer, but he was murdered before that could happen. HIS killer wasn't so kind as to leave any deliberate clues.
  • The Five (2016): Jakob Marosi, a convicted serial killer doing life, appears to entertain himself by messing with the family of Jesse Wells and the police by falsely claiming he killed Jesse then leading them on a wild goose chase for the body.
  • Funky Squad: In "The Carnival is Over", an unknown criminal leaves a series of mocking messages and cryptic clues for Funky Squad, including a clown doll with a knife through its head.


    Puppet Shows 
  • Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons: The Mysterons do this all the time. Somehow, despite tipping their hand every single time, they actually win in a few episodes, starting with the second. This is justified because the Mysterons have declared a "war of nerves", seeking to make the humans prone to self-destructive paranoia even if their specific plan of the episode fails... Or they're just doing this for their own amusement and the human race are unwilling contestants in some sick hybrid of Survivor and The Crystal Maze.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Exalted, Infernal Exalts are able to atone for their actions that displease their demonic/titanic masters by committing Acts of (Card-Carrying) Villainy. An example is "Best Enemy Recognition," in which the Infernal chooses a rival Exalt of roughly their same power level to be their Arch-Enemy, and continuously attempts to draw the Exalt so designated into their life by such methods as sending them clues alerting them to their evil deeds.

    Video Games 
  • The final case of the DS game Unsolved Crimes is one big series of these.
  • The game Ripper, based on Jack the Ripper. But in the future!
  • Carmen Sandiego: Carmen is possibly only second to the Riddler in being known for this. She leaves the clues as a friendly challenge of wits against the Friendly Enemy/Worthy Opponent detectives. It's implied she doesn't actually want the stuff she's stealing (since she would have to be set for life hundreds of times over just to pull off the heists in the first place), and is in it purely for the thrill of the chase.
  • Persona 4 has this with the Phantom Thief, who leaves clues for Naoto after stealing her items. This is a subversion in that the Phantom Thief turned out to be Yakushiji, the family secretary and he didn't steal the items, they were simply handed to him by Naoto's grandfather, who set the whole thing up as an act so Naoto would stop worrying about the family name and remember that she solved cases because it was something she loved doing.
  • In the Homicide chapter of L.A. Noire, The Black Dahlia deliberately leaves a series of clues that Cole eventually uses to track him down. Specifically, He sends the LAPD a taunting letter that contains a passage of Shelley poetry; the passage contains allusions to an LA landmark. When Cole visits the landmark, he finds a piece of evidence which links the Dahlia to a recent murder and another passage of Shelley which alludes to a different landmark. This continues until the final passage leads Cole to the Dahlia's hideout.
  • Sandra Lieberman in Trauma Team of the series Trauma Center locks the detective in her room with 4 phonebombs planted inside, forcing the detective to waste time solving riddles as she drives off to the airport to murder the First Lady. Naomi succeeding results in Sandra admitting defeat, but Naomi correctly guesses that Sandra has hidden a 5th bomb in the offchance that Naomi wins. She finds it in a teddy bear plushie sitting innocuously on the bed, pictured just offscreen above.
  • In Hopkins FBI, the titular FBI agent's fiancée Samantha is abducted by serial killer/terrorist/cartoon bad guy Bernie Berckson, who challenges Hopkins to rescue her by following his trail of clues and uncovering the bodies of his previous victims hidden around the city. Berckson's clues make little sense, their intended solutions less so, and it's best not to dwell on the absurd amount of preparation and foresight needed to have set up his little scavenger hunt in the first place. And the ultimate payoff for all this? Berckson uses the final clue to lure Hopkins into shooting and killing Samantha.
  • Case 3 of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney features a case where a murder was committed to the lyrics of a song sung that night. It turns out that the events of that night, up to a point, only fit the lyrics by accident, and Trucy Wright's conjecture that there was a deliberate connection was merely a case of false pattern recognition. Only after her conjecture came up did the killer take action to force a fit with the lyrics, deliberately planting a Red Herring in the process.
  • The online game Playing With Letters casts you in the role of a detective who's been left a series of letters and puzzle boxes by a killer with a love of wordplay. It's a trap — the answer to the last puzzle ("Where am I now?") is "BEHIND YOU", and the screen flashes red right after you solve it...unless you find the extremely well-hidden secret ending in which the detective outwits the killer at his own game.
  • Batman: Arkham City: Victor Zsasz and his "chase the pay-phones" challenges—Batman has to answer one phone and then glide at high speed to find the other phone several miles away, or else Zsasz's captive will die. He always puts the second phone just a bit further away every time Batman thwarts him!


    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons:
    • Chief Wiggum was the "Mutton-Chop Murderer", who wanted to create a crime even Lisa Simpson couldn't solve. Played as a parody, natch.
    • Subversion; Bart hides Lisa's report and challenges her with a series of riddles:
    Bart: To find it, you'll have to decipher a series of clues, each more fiendish than...
    Lisa: Found it!
    Bart: Doh!
  • Spoofed in the South Park episode "Chickenlover": the titular animal molester always left a message at the scene of the crime. The clues turn out to be really, really obvious... but Officer Barbrady is illiterate, and thus, he can't read the messages. After forcing himself to painstakingly learn to read through children's books, he eventually manages to find and arrest the culprit... who turns out to be a bookmobile driver who was trying to encourage Officer Barbrady to confront his illiteracy, even though there was no way he could have known about it before he molested the first chicken.
    • Barbrady then celebrates his new found literacy by beginning to read books...starting with Atlas Shrugged, which he regarded as such utter garbage that he decided he would never read again, making the bookmobile driver's whole plan null and void.
  • Bromwell High: One of the girls hides some illegal sweets people are looking for and composes a rhyme telling where they are.
    If it is the sweets you seek, into the cloakroom you must sneak, and find where I keep my books, and hang my coat and bag on hooks. Behind the metal doors is stowed the sweets what make your head explode.
  • The animated version of Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? has this in every episode as a Shout-Out to Alphabet Soup Cans. Ironically at least one episode has the lead characters being puzzled when clues seem too obvious or follow an unusual train of logic.
    • As with the games, it's Justified: Carmen is only in it for the thrill of the chase. And she WANTS to either win or lose very narrowly. It's not fun otherwise.
  • Subverted on Monkey Dust when a serial killer becomes entangled in a furious game of cat and mouse with a police detective. The thrill of the chase is blown when the serial killer accidentally falls asleep in his car at the crime scene after killing a man: blood stained and with weapon in hand. Disappointed that it ended with such an anticlimax, the police detective decides to let the killer go. Only to be then killed by him.
  • Lampshaded in The Replacements
    Master Pho: I would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for that meddling kid.
    Todd: Actually, you would have gotten away with it if you hadn't left us all those clues.
  • Darkwing Duck constantly suspects this happens with certain enemies. It is even weaponized by Negaduck who lamshades it by leaving ridiculously vague trails to his HQ on purpose, simply because Darkwing would never get the idea to simply look at the logo that broadly proclaims it is Negaducks hideout. Interestingly enough, while actual mind games that are supposed to keep him stuck or even killed are solved by Darkwing with ease, mock games take him forever or he may even end up never solving them despite the obvious solution being right in front of him.

    Real Life 
  • The Zodiac Killer; a serial killer who taunted California policemen with postcards and letters written in secret code. According to the letters he sent to the press, he killed people in order to have slaves in the afterlife. Ergo also his obvious stand-in Scorpio from Dirty Harry. A number of investigators and researchers consider many, if not all, of his "clues", including his codes, to be purely red herrings. He was never caught.
  • The East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker/Visalia Ransacker/Golden State Killer, a serial offender with at least 12 murders and 50 rapes to his name, would write poems to police. He's more infamously known for sending taunting phone calls to his victims and to the police, including a 1977 911 call to the Sacramento Police Department, labeling them "dumb fuckers" and saying how they will never catch him. 41 years later, they did.
  • Jack the Ripper wrote letters to the police and newspapers, taunting them. The "From Hell" letter is the most infamous, as it was delivered along with part of one of the victims' kidneys.
  • Others who sent letters (some of them more coherent than others) include Son of Sam, BTK, and the Axeman of New Orleans. Usually, the capture had little to do with the any attempted mind games: Son of Sam was captured when a witness saw him loitering suspiciously near his illegally parked car around the time of the shootings then confessed quickly. BTK was caught after a floppy disk he sent was traced to a computer registered by a local church (after being assured by investigators in a previous communication that oh yeah, they totally wouldn't be able to trace a floppy disk in any way).
  • Fugitive Scott Burnside (featured on Investigate Discovery's I (Almost) Got Away With It) sent a recorded message to investigators shortly before he fled the country, taunting them with an offer of testifying against the co-conspirators of the quadruple murder he was linked to.
  • Terry Blair, a serial killer in Kansas City who was featured on The First 48 which was filming in the city at the time, called 911 to report the location of some of the bodies of his victims, which was their first indication they actually had a serial killer, and taunt the police. In an example of a real-life backfire, detectives were able to use the cell tower data to identify the area he was calling from and then the background sounds on the call to narrow it down to the street, which allowed them to home in on Blair as a suspect.