The Anatomy of Murder

Every time I think we must be covering all the possibilities, someone pops up with another way of creating a murder mystery.  I used to think that the spectrum went from fully improvised to fully scripted, but it seems to go beyond fully scripted into the area of written clues but no dialogue.

At the improvised end of the spectrum, Steve Clark and David Lovesy (of TLC Creative) are also part of Really Horrid Productions, a group that creates and performs murder mysteries.  The creation part is to create a scenario – a narrative arc for the event and a set of character back-stories.  The performance involves mingling with the audience and improvising dialogue – frequently very vigorous arguments – to move the plot along the pre-determined arc.  (Steve told me a tale of performing at a wedding breakfast at which only the bride and groom knew that they were taking part in a murder mystery.  Steve took the part of the toastmaster, a role which he played straight for the actual wedding speeches, but then veered off into some bizarre interactions with the members of the performing company.  David was, I think, playing the role of the technician managing the sound system, and was being so stroppy that one of the wedding guests offered to throw him out – an offer which Steve tactfully declined.)

At the written end, we have something that is, essentially, a play; scripted dialogue and (possibly) a formal stage set.  The audience interactivity can be restricted to just making a guess (possibly a stab) at whodunnit, however there are plenty of variations including written clues and the audience interrogating the suspects.  The latter takes us back into improvisation, since the cast will not know what the audience is going to ask (other than “Was it you what done it?”)

Once you get away from the formal sets, interactive murder mysteries become very cheap to stage (or to complete lack of stage.  What’s the appropriate verb here, when you’re putting on a show without a stage?  “Produce” or “mount”, I suppose.  Anyway, whatever you’re doing with it, the costs are relatively low.)  Consequently, whodunnits are often used as fundraisers.

The social committee of my local church wanted to use one as a fundraiser.  Whilst “let’s murder someone for Christian Aid” sounds a bit uncharitable, an event with entertainment is more likely to attract an audience than an invitation to a frugal supper.  However, the social committee had a stipulation: they wanted was a murder mystery in which they didn’t have to learn any lines.  Oh, fine, that’s improvisation.  No.  They didn’t want to improvise either.  So that would be a murder mystery for around six characters played by people who won’t learn lines and won’t interact with the audience through interrogation or other improvised formats?  Okay…

After a bit of thought, I came up with a new murder mystery format.  (New in the sense that it was one I hadn’t come across before.)  Instead of a script to learn, each participant was given a witness statement to read out.  These were written (loosely, within the constraints of a murder mystery format) as if they had been dictated in a police station, so they could be read out individually.  The statements were supplemented by a sketch map and three pieces of written evidence.  The result was Death of a Well-Spoken Gentleman.  The ladies of the social committee took the roles of the six witnesses and told me that I could play the detective (who acts as master of ceremonies for the mystery).  It worked.  The audience were swept-along by the mystery, and, whilst many of them got taken-in by the red herrings, several got to, or close to, the right answer.  From a writing point of view, it was a very satisfactory outcome; as a small charity fundraiser, it netted a respectable £500.

Death of a Well-Spoken Gentleman - a murder mystery by Stuart Ardern

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