The murder was discovered after the guests arrived, but before they’d helped themselves to a salad of red-leaf lettuce, apples and fresh mozzarella, laced with apple cider vinegar and olive oil. As they popped crisp fruit and soft cheese into their mouths, they asked each other pointed questions. A nightclub singer with red lips and a sparkling evening gown was on the hot seat: “I hear your father was a convicted killer. Have you followed in his footsteps?” “Were you ever a ‘working goil’ at The Everlay Club?”
The scene was a Chicago speakeasy in 1928, but the events were being played out in my chilly Charlotte living room, with period jazz emanating from my MacBook rather than a five-piece band. Eight of us were engaged in a “murder mystery dinner party” game purchased from Amazon.com as an all-inclusive kit. Nametags were affixed to our costumes, and booklets containing character information and clues sat beside our plates.
Halloween may be the obvious time to take part in a macabre mystery game — in which each player is also a suspect in a heinous crime — but it’s easy to find an interactive whodunit for all occasions. The Internet abounds in websites peddling everything from pirate-themed murders set on the briny deep to women-only scenarios that occur at chocolate-laden bridal showers.
At host-party.com, a Colorado company started in 2004, crime fighters can choose among more than 70 prefab misdeeds, with each kit costing about $30. The site gives hosts everything they need to assign roles to their guests, send out e-vites with costuming suggestions and a few initial clues, set the scene with appropriate décor, and whip up dinner. Recipes range from the classy — warm goat-cheese salad and Steak Balmoral with whisky cream sauce — to the grotesque, such as Bleeding Gums Gumbo, in which tomatoes are fashioned into blood clots and corn kernels imitate rotting teeth.
At host-a-murder.com, the focus is on slightly less gory corporate gatherings. “Murder mystery events ... allow colleagues to mix and mingle under glee-inducing circumstances ... [which] creates a better work environment,” the site claims. “Your staff will now have something more to talk about other than account #251 or Sarah and Bill’s office romance.”
But you don’t have to go through the rigmarole of hosting — or finding a friend or a boss willing to do it — to solve a crime over dinner. Guests simply dress up and show up for various murder mystery events around the state, such as an “audience-interactive” cruise on the Spirit of Ethan Allen III that leaves the harbor every Thursday from mid-June through early September. For $48.10, guests get a jaunt on the lake complete with sordid scenarios and lobster bisque.
Prefer to remain on dry land? At Back Inn Time, a B&B in St. Albans, the owner’s son, Tim Cray, who also owns the nearby Park Café, hosts a couple of open murder mystery dinner parties each year, and he’s always willing to whip one up for a group of friends looking for a good time. “Typically you want eight to 12 people,” he suggests. For $50 per person, Cray, who purchases his kits online, “provides the facilitation and narrating” along with a four-course meal.
“I always do a sit-down dinner,” he says. The main course might be a maple-glazed chicken breast stuffed with cheddar, Granny Smith apples and ham, or beef tenderloin with a Guinness demi-glace. Sleuths can also “choose to pay top dollar for a real fancy meal,” says Cray.
Back Inn Time’s mystery dinners usually take about four hours to complete, but they may stretch for six or seven if the solvers are really gung-ho. Cray estimates only about 15 percent of individuals actually identify the culprit. (In most boxed mysteries, the guilty party is a participant who’s as clueless — at least early in the game — as everyone else.)
Rustic inns can be creepy enough, but it’s hard to envision a better setting for a murder mystery than Wilson Castle, a 32-room, turreted brick pile in Proctor that was built beginning in 1867. Now owned by a nonprofit, it’s sorely in need of restoration. Enter Rusty Trombley, whose job as the property’s “entertainment director” is to cook up fundraising ideas. Some of his are deliciously murderous ones.
The castle’s mainstay is the haunted tour Trombley puts on every Halloween, and he’s overseen wine tastings, jazz festivals and even a singles soirée. But for the past few years he’s been offering murder mystery evenings, too. “The owner said, ‘Is there anything else you can think of?’” he recalls. “I’d never been to a murder mystery, and thought they were intriguing.” It helps that Trombley has a background in special effects and makeup for film and television — and connections with the local police department and EMT response team.
While tours of the castle force visitors to stay behind the velvet ropes, those who come for murder mystery parties get to explore nearly every part of the building, from the drawers and cupboards in the bedrooms to the service corridor that leads to the kitchen. Clues might be anywhere. Trombley’s favorite creepy setting: “The basement,” he says. “It looks like Dracula’s castle, with vaulted ceilings and long hallways.”
Unlike Cray, Trombley concocts his own stories. “The name of my show is ‘Murder Mysteries Live,’ because we do a lot of it on the spot,” he explains. Using members of the audience who have expressed a desire to be a part of the action, Trombley shapes a scenario he’s written to fit the crowd. One constant: “I try to be a mysterious, brooding host,” says the impresario, who describes himself as “tall, dark and maybe handsome.” “I’m 6-foot-2 with a goatee; sometimes I walk around with a cane.”
The formal sit-down dinner is usually prepared by Trombley’s brother, an accomplished chef who catered Michael J. Fox’s Vermont wedding. While guests eat, “I go into each dining room and lay out the scenario,” Trombley says. “I give them what they’re expecting.” That may mean telling dressed-up people who are scarfing down cheese-and-spinach-stuffed flank steak or vegetarian lasagna that they’ll be solving the mystery of a sordid affair that took place in a previous century.
But the setup is “all a ruse.” As sated guests seek clues scattered around the building, a real-time scenario — a modern-day mystery Trombley has cooked up — unfolds around them. Perhaps the lights go out, and people have to grope their way in the dark. Then a dinner guest stumbles over a body, tricked out with makeup and fake blood. Occasionally, a member of the group simply disappears.
“They really do lose track of what’s real and what’s fake,” Trombley says gleefully. That’s especially true when real emergency vehicles arrive on the scene. “We really try to push the limits at the reality end of things,” the mastermind explains. “One of my favorite ones was when I got arrested right in front of them.”
Because Wilson Castle has “an ancient heating system,” Trombley has stopped hosting murder mysteries for the season, but he’s already booking them for next spring and summer. As many as 50 people can attend the “recession special,” a casual, buffet-style mystery dinner for $30 per person. Private parties of 14 to 20 can pay $65 each for the full-on formal meal and game. “We want people to dress up like they’re going to a wedding,” Trombley says. “It gives people in central Vermont a reason to put on cocktail dresses and heels.”
Lacking a spooky castle for my own murder mystery evening, I opted to stick with the tried and true: a boxed kit from a company called How to Host a Murder. Since I discovered murder mystery parties as a teenager, I’d hosted three, including one that took place in Elizabethan England called “The Maiming of the Shrew.” Although I can’t remember if the culprit was Gridlock, the Merchant of Tennis, or Spamlet, Prince of Hallmarke, I recall having had a good time.
When the box arrived in the mail, I began working on recipe ideas and considering casting and costumes. I knew I’d play the journalist, nicknamed “Scoop,” but who could pull off a high-society, Packard-driving dame with a shady past? I recruited some theatrically inclined friends.
The included recipe for antipasti platter and veal scallopini struck me as too simple, so I concocted a menu of potato gnocchi and braciole — tomato-sauce-braised beef with pancetta, Parmesan, garlic, parsley and bread crumbs.
The fluffy gnocchi topped with tender shreds of beef were a hit, but the boxed murder mystery fell a little flat — especially after I’d heard about Trombley’s bloody corpses and real-seeming arrests. Our solution seemed random — the brassy brothel owner did it — but finding that out hinged on taking minutely detailed notes. Not easy to do while consuming an elaborate meal.
While we may not have figured out who bumped off gangster “Hal” Coppone, we sure had a good time getting dressed up and adopting accents. Next time, I’ll try another company that offers print-your-own versions from the web. And if I’m ever feeling flush — and can find a fancy enough dress — I’m contemplating a trip to Wilson Castle for some classy mealtime mayhem.