Hot off the presses, murder of business tycoon Clancy Woodward!
The afternoon of March 18th, during an impromptu dinner hosted by librarian/private eye Flo Mulligan, tragedy struck with the grim murder of businessman Clancy Woodward. Current sources indicate that the crime was perpetrated by a Russian KGB spy who fled the scene and has not been seen since. Apparently Mr. Woodward was killed with poisoned water. It is believed the crime was motivated by bad business practices that Mr. Woodward was engaged in internationally. Mrs. Mulligan was left the bulk of the tycoon’s fortune while Mr. Lance Benjamin (aka Mr. David Jones, aka Mr. Thomas Anders, aka Mr. Heraldo Damian Sr.) was left a portion to cover Mr. Woodward’s substantial gambling debts. The search for this dangerous killer goes on but reliable sources indicate they may have fled back to Russian soil…
Rather than keeping to more conventional analog games, we decided to present a murder mystery and the manner that it could be used in library programming. In order to present this we donned costumes, gathered some props, prepared sound effects, and actually performed the murder mystery for the class. In doing so we sought to showcase how to host a murder mystery rather than merely outlining the process for the class. The following is a breakdown of the material covered in the presentation and some links to resources to further prepare for a murder mystery in the library!
The history of murder mysteries arise out of two main sources: murder mystery fiction from the 1800s and the formalized role-playing games beginning with Dungeons and Dragons in 1974. The real life murder of Saville Kent in 1860 captured the interest of the British public and resulted in a hunger for similar stories. Sherlock Holmes and the works of Agatha Christie both helped feed into this trend. In 1935 an attempt was made to put this theme into an analog game with “Jury Box.” This occurred again in 1948 with “Cluedo.” By the 1980s, likely partially due to the rise of formalized pen and paper role-playing games, prepackaged murder mystery nights became available for consumers. Today they are available via an abundance of websites.
Trammell, A. (2014). From Where Do Dungeons Come? Analog Game Studies, III(II).
Steamfunk Detectives: Origin of the Murder Mystery Game. (2012, February 18). Retrieved March 10, 2016, from http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/11/18/steamfunk-detectives/
Common Themes and Tropes
Originating in part from fiction and having a very particular aesthetic, murder mysteries also share a variety of common tropes and themes. The setting is frequently a dinner or banquet of some kind and it will frequently reference events of a shadowy past to add intrigue to the setting. These events of the past might be crimes or indicate secrets that the various characters are trying to hide. These secrets often conceal hidden relationships between the various members of the cast. This all adds to a sense of foreboding and mystery that can sometimes be contrasted with humour while other times is kept consistent throughout.
The level of involvement for players varies. In some cases, those who will be guessing the murder are simply spectators who try to keep track of all that is happening. Other times, individuals are given characters and personas to play and may be directly involved in the crime. The individual to be murdered is generally preset, however, and indicated by their extremely unpleasant demeanor or tumultuous links to the other guests at the murder mystery.
Issues of Representation
As our presentation sought to satirize and as other events failed to recognize, the tropes and themes of murder mysteries can mean issues in regard to representation. Murder mysteries evoke many stereotypes surrounding class, ethnicity, and profession that are common to older fiction. The sexy femme fatal, the foolish floozy, the conniving servant, or the mysterious foreigner are all tropes that might be evoked in a murder mystery. This can mean misrepresentation of groups, of particular note from those examples women and those outside the normative middle class. It also can mean various groups are not represented. As such, any murder mystery hosted at a library should endeavour to shake up such tropes, enrich their setting with diversity, and not go for the easy “laugh” at the cost being of sexist, racist, or homophobic.
Finally, we examined the role that murder mysteries could play in the library. It is a handy tool for getting to know new people in a setting of fun and intrigue and it can be used to encourage individuals to explore the library for clues. The example linked below uses a murder mystery as an icebreaker for recently arrived undergraduates. It can also be tied into other improvisational games and form the backbone of a larger library event. Characters in the event can be drawn from popular fiction and this can be used to encourage those participating to engage with stories they may otherwise have been unaware of or indifferent to before attending.
The murder mystery also has the advantage of being extremely adaptable. With a little creativity a script or characters can be adapted to suit whatever programming need the library currently is experiencing. Furthermore, it can be altered to be either elaborate or simple in terms of costumes or scope as the library requires. If the library is seeking to host a large fundraising event with a sense of fun then the murder mystery could be a gala event with extensive costumes and food supplied. Alternatively, it could be a humble youth event that gets individuals more comfortable in library space. Regardless of what is needed the murder mystery can be adapted to suit that requirement.
For an example of an online resource for murder mysteries see the following: https://www.nightofmystery.com/how-to-play/
For instructions on how to host a murder mystery in the library see the following: http://www.carleton.edu/campus/library/reference/workshops/MurderMystery.html