||Issue Date: 6 / 2006
How to Host a Murder Mystery Dinner Party
The best party I’ve ever thrown was a murder mystery dinner party. I invited friends and colleagues from various parts of my world, and they mixed! They mingled! Even I had fun. We talked about it for months afterwards. This experience even spawned an interest in other sorts of murder mysteries at public venues. More about this later.
Beverly Michaels created a crime scene for her "Who Killed
Santa?" party from Merri Mysteries. (Beverly Michaels)
Click image to enlarge.
I’ve never thought of myself as a great hostess, but I enjoy organizing the occasional dinner party or holiday gathering. I borrowed the idea for a murder mystery dinner from friends of mine who had moved across the country. Their party was a success--their goal was to get to know people in their new town. I thought this was a great way I could have a party, too, and entertainment would be built-in. I wouldn’t have to worry about lulls in the conversation because my guests would be working together to solve the mystery.
Here’s how it works: the prospective host buys or downloads a mystery game kit. These can be designed for six characters (a small dinner party) up to hundreds (think corporate retreat, family reunion or class). Usually, the home versions cost less than thirty dollars and include invitations, character sketches, clues, and booklets for each character. Some include a CD or tape with instructions or scene-setting messages. The characters keep their booklets to themselves: In these booklets are clues, alibis and explanations. Everyone will be accused of murder at some point in the game!
The first game I chose was set in holiday time during World War II. I left my decorations up a few weeks longer since my party was in January. I already had plenty of big band music (Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman for starters). I planned a menu which included foods that would have been popular in the 1940s. That was easy. The hard part was getting the right number of people to RSVP and commit to the party. Since the party was in the winter, I didn’t have much competition from vacations and heavy school workloads. (A second party I planned for the summer was not so easy to schedule!)
Once the characters were set, I didn’t have much to do besides plan the menu and the details of ambiance. The party ran itself. The booklets and clues all worked together and everyone jumped into the conversation to accuse others of the murder and defend themselves. We ate different courses of the meal in different rooms of the house just to add interest and provide a chance to stretch and walk around. Appetizers were served in the living room with the introduction and first section of the mystery. Parts two and three of the mystery took place in the dining room with a pot roast dinner. Back to the living room for the revelation of the murderer’s identity and a dessert buffet.
In-between acts, all ten guests were mingling and discussing things as their actual selves as well as their characters. Some wore costumes, some brought props, and some used accents to give their characters color. One of the participants remarked, “Those of us who had accents, or chose to use them, had a blast trying to stay in character.” We all had our ideas about who the murderer might be, but most of us were incorrect. The game definitely kept us guessing.
The second mystery I hosted, in July, was a smaller affair. There were six suspects this time, and I was confident enough with the procedure to simultaneously host and play a character. This mystery took place at a California winery, so I placed various kinds of California wines in the different rooms, and served a meal featuring light fare: salad, pasta, grilled chicken, and light desserts. This party went well, too, but being smaller it seemed more like an intimate dinner party with friends than a grand affair. Again the participants got to know each other as real people and as characters, and it was an enjoyable time.
So while my expectations for enjoyable social experiences were met, what were the expectations of my guests? Most had not been to a murder mystery dinner party before, but were still enthusiastic about playing a role. They found improvising in their characters easier than expected. The framework of the story and characters supplied by the game came in handy. One taciturn gentleman was very interested in watching the festivities, but did not want to play a character. In the end he was called upon to assume an identity because of a last-minute cancellation. His turned out to be one of the most authentic, well-acted, and funniest characterizations. He later told me, “Sometimes you just have to get over yourself!” It’s a game after all, and the challenges are fun.
Most of those who had agreed to play a character were surprised at how easy it was to get into character with the small amounts of information they were given in the invitation and booklet. The parties are constructed in such a way that characters play off each other. One suspect’s supplied accusation of another suspect will trigger a defense and so on. It was fun for them to stay in character and solve the mystery at the same time.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you plan to host your own murder mystery:
--The hardest part of throwing this kind of party is scheduling. For smaller kits, every character has to show up or your mystery might be missing a murderer or key witness. However, kits for larger parties are usually very flexible and only the suspects (12 to 14 people) have to show up. Try to schedule your party for an off time when people are less likely to have conflicts. My winter party was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak January.
--Try to serve food from the era or the region of your story. This will add to the authenticity and the general ambiance. If you’re stumped about a certain cuisine, try your public library. They probably own cookbooks from different countries and periods of history.
--Your public library can also help out if you do not have the appropriate music or if you do not know what the appropriate music might be. Popular songs by year or decade are listed in some standard reference books, and almanacs can clue you in on popular culture of the time. You wouldn’t play the same music on a luxury cruise ship in the 1920s as you would at a 1940s USO party.
--If you are worried about playing a part while cooking and serving food, then don’t! You can include yourself in the festivities by impersonating the ghost of the murdered person, a butler, wine steward, or detective improvising questions during the proceedings. Since you will not have a booklet to explain some of the clues as the murder suspects do, you could contribute by making things clearer for everyone by paraphrasing the revelations.
--Rather than having clues just lying around for guests and suspects to find, try having additional guests guard the clues and make suspects “work” for them. Maybe they will be asked to sing, answer trivia questions, or tell a joke.
--If your dinner party is a fancy social affair (or pretending to be), ask a guest to be a butler announcing characters’ fictitious names as they walk in. This butler could help with hosting duties and guard a clue, too.
--If you are nervous about not having a full cast of characters, invite some understudies. Tactfully make it clear to them that they won’t be murder suspects, but they could improvise a detective or bartender character and add to the fun. Find out if your understudies would be willing to play the opposite gender, too!
--Make a rule beforehand that no weapons are allowed. Even if someone brings a toy as a prop, a passer-by could think this was real.
--As one of my invited murder suspects said, “Be prepared to be challenged.”
Perhaps you are nervous about hosting your own mystery party. Keep a lookout for mysteries at fundraisers, dinner theaters and bed and breakfasts. I have attended a few of these as well. While there is usually an incentive of winning fabulous prizes for those who solve the mystery, the clues at these events can be quite puzzling. At one particular dinner theater event, we thought we were to solve one murder mystery. Over the course of dinner, though, four additional characters were murdered. We were perplexed and couldn’t even begin to guess who the culprit was. (It turned out to be an innocent-seeming character planted in the audience.) At another public event, the amateur sleuths had to sing, answer trivia questions, or otherwise earn clues.
My next mystery party will be in the autumn or winter. I selected a mystery that takes place in an office setting, so the only costume needed will be business attire (with some possible wacky touches). There will be minimal food preparation since ordering take-out is part of the story in this case. The biggest problem this time is deciding whom to invite!
--Mysteries by Vincent (www.mysteriesbyvincent.com). These original games are intended for children, adults, or women only. They are available in boxed sets. The site features a number of helpful hints for your party.
--Merri Mysteries (www.merrimysteries.com). These original murder mystery games are appropriate for any occasion. They also have some kits for all-girl and all-boy parties, or for specific holidays. The number of guests is variable.
--Dinner and a Murder (www.dinnerandamurder.com). These games are available in CD, boxed set, or downloadable form. They are designed for adults, teens, or kids, and some come in spicy or clean versions. Guests must mingle with each other to uncover clues and determine who is a friend and who is a foe.
--Dinner Games (www.dinnergames.com). These original games are available in boxed sets. The site also features a costume and decorations shop.
--Decipher (www.decipher.com). This company has created sixteen games (or episodes) for grown-ups. They are also available in some retail stores.
--Party-Oz (www.party-oz.com.au/murder_mystery). They sell a variety of downloadable murder mystery games.
--Mysteries and More (www.murdermysterygames.com). This source sells games for kids, teens, adults, all-girls (slumber parties or showers), or large groups. They carry games from four different companies. These are searchable by number of guests, age of guests, and the time period.
To read more about murder mystery parties on The World & I Online, visit our archives:
--"Murder Mystery Weekends: People Are Dying to Play Detective," by Judy Wade, October 1998 (Article #14898).
Margaret Montet is a freelance author based in Hamilton, New