DIY: become a detective

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Robert Benchley teaches you all you need to know:

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I do declare; or, murder mystery extravaganza

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Michael Scott as Caleb Crawdad in a Mexican standoff

In an episode of The Office, Michael Scott organized a murder mystery to distract his employees from the discouraging news that their branch might soon be closed. After watching this episode, a good friend of mine couldn’t stop repeating Michael’s catchphrase from the episode, “I do declare,” spoken in a slightly southern drawl befitting his character Caleb Crawdad. This friend decided to host her own murder mystery party.

I consider myself something of a pro at murder mysteries. I went to my first party at a young age, and zealously guarded my character’s secret of keeping baby teeth to make into a necklace. Turned out the secret didn’t have much relevance to solving the mystery, but I kept it nonetheless.

In college, my sorority threw a murder mystery for forty sisters on campus during the summer. My character was some sort of rich heiress with a penchant for illicit drugs and an inexplicable hatred of the Catholic church. I quickly blasted through the fake money that came in my character’s envelope through art and drug deals, and hurt the Catholic priest’s feelings when I couldn’t give a reason as to why I loathed her. Someone eventually killed me in the bathroom, though only after the fact did I find out that you aren’t allowed to kill anyone while the game is on. I didn’t mind, though, as I continued to haunt the others in ghost-form (which, in practice, was no different from my living-form).

I played the part of Kitty Cocktail for my friend’s Office-inspired party. The time period was rolling ’20s, so I borrowed a flapper dress that my great-grandmother once wore to jazz clubs. As cool as it is to wear an authentic flapper dress, I can see why they went out of style–not a flattering silhouette. I found myself once again to be a non-essential character and thus was unable to either contribute any clues or solve the mystery with my limited information. But the trademark of being a pro is not necessarily solving the murder mystery, it’s how essential you make your seemingly non-essential character.

Author, at left, dressed as Kitty Cocktail in vintage flapper dress and cloche hat

Playing detective

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Carmen Sandiego

Thinking back on my childhood, I realize how many of my favorite games and shows were based on detective work. My favorite computer game was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (I especially loved the typing sound as I, the gumshoe, was promoted to my next case). One of my favorites shows was Mathnet, a children’s TV segment in a math show called Square One. I also absolutely adored the board game Clue.

Mathnet, a parody of Dragnet, focused on two detectives, Kate Monday and George Frankly, who solved crimes with mathematical and scientific concepts. A few of their cases stand out in my mind, especially that of loot stolen by motorboat that Kate and George find while scuba-diving by calculating the tidal drift between objects. And, of course, the murder mystery episode which totally freaked me out (you don’t usually expect a children’s math program to be scary). They think they’ve gone to a friend’s murder mystery weekend, but accidentally arrive at another house where guests are really disappearing. Thinking everyone is a great actor, they’re not alarmed until they realize they’re the only guests left. Them and the butler.

Which brings me to Clue. Clue was apparently created in 1944 by a British man to play while waiting out air raids, and originally included such potential murder weapons as an axe, bomb, syringe, and shillelagh.

Scarlet, my childhood heroine

I still remember playing Clue with my family when I was no more than five years old. I was allowed, for the first time, to play as my own character instead of being a team with one of the adults. I felt I was doing pretty well checking off boxes I knew to not be the murder weapon or suspect. Suddenly I realized I only had one unchecked box per category: in essence, I had solved the case of who killed Mr. Boddy. I made my guess: Ms. Peacock in the library with the candlestick. And one by one my family said they didn’t have any of these cards. When it came full circle and no one had any evidence to the contrary, one of my aunts gently prodded, “You’re sure you have none of those cards, Jenna?” I looked down at my hand, where I saw Ms. Peacock next to the library card, only partially obstructing my view of the candlestick. Oops. Luckily, Carmen Sandiego and Mathnet would come along later to teach me how to be a real detective.

How to be a detective

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What you’ll need: magnifying glass, fedora/trenchcoat

Songlist: Watching the Detectives by Elvis Costello, Fingerprints  by Katy Perry

Further reading: anything by Agatha Christie

On Saturday night, my house was burglarized. Three of us were sleeping upstairs while, downstairs, a person or persons took a wide variety of electronic items and their corresponding power cords and remotes, as well as money in the form of paper and plastic. Most confusingly, this person took a bottle of white wine. An opened bottle, in fact. A bottle that was about as cheap as wine gets and that I’d imbibed the better part of. Our burglar passed up a six-pack of local microbrew Hefeweisens, showing once and for all that this thief was tasteless.

Sunday morning after we stumbled around our significantly altered downstairs, a few police officers came over to inspect the damage. The first let us know that though she was “no CSI-type officer,” she’d try to dust for fingerprints in a few key locations. No luck. A second officer arrived a little later that hour and assured us that he was “kinda the CSI-type officer, the kind that sees what other people don’t.” He dusted for fingerprints, too, and was similarly luckless.

I must admit to not watching any of these new-fangled detective shows–CSI, Criminal Minds, Bones, etc. This may be a gross overgeneralization, but it seems that these shows focus a little too much on torturing and murdering pretty young females. There’s enough violence against women in the world–why glamorize it on sexy-killer-television-series? In any case, a cop referring to herself or himself as “CSI-type” doesn’t necessarily impress me.

Hercule Poirot, busy solving mysteries

You know what would impress me? If someone said they were the Hercule Poirot type officer, or the Miss Marple type.

I was borderline-obsessed with Agatha Christie’s detective novels when I was younger. I kept a list of all 80 of her novels featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, meticulously checking them off as I finished yet another dazzling solution to a puzzling crime. I loved the way Hercule Poirot could understand the exact thought pattern of another human being, however improbable that might be. I loved that the allure of these crimes was not the sexualized bloodlust of today’s television, but the hyper-intellectualization of the human condition.

I briefly set up my own detective’s desk, partly modelled on what I saw on my favorite TV show, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? I wore an old fedora and trenchcoat I found in the basement closet, adorned the table with a notebook, magnifying glass, calculator, plastic phone, and globe. And then, having no mysteries to solve, I took down my desk and set it up again from time to time just to feel like a detective.

I discovered more fingerprints on our glass door and refrigerator today and, creepy as it is to think about a stranger leaving those prints sometime during the night, I eagerly called up our CSI-type officer. Sir, I said when he answered, I think I may have found a clue…