Category Archives: Murder Mysteries

A Matter of Life and Death (and Steam)

Val McDermid, doyenne  of Scottish crime writing, recently did a broadcast talk entitled “Murder is not the point”.   (It’s one of the Radio 4 “Point of View” series, currently available here. )  Her thesis is that murder is a hook to engage the reader, but the writing can take any direction the writer wants to take – which might reflect on history, geography, society, or any other field that preoccupies the writer.   “Murder,” as McDermid put it, “is just a carnival barker’s pitch to get you inside the tent”.

Lazy Bee Scripts publishes murder mysteries of the interactive sort.   These have evolved from whodunnit novels, cited by McDermid as the font of crime fiction, in which the reader tries to solve the author’s puzzle.   In the stage version, the detective work is done by the audience.  Since there is a limited time for the audience to absorb background material, interactive murder mysteries tend towards the light entertainment end of the crime spectrum, rather than McDermid’s high-minded approach (using the murder in the foreground as a means of exploring the background).  Nevertheless, there is still scope for the author to lead the audience down a chosen path.

Rocket The Steampunk Bee (detail)In Abram Skinner, I’ve used a murder mystery as a vehicle for exploring a small corner of the Steampunk multiverse.  Steampunk might be thought of as a fantasy genre, but I don’t think that helps very much.  (The term Fantasy tends to be used disparagingly to indicate something beneath the dignity of the serious reader, but I take the view that all fiction is fantasy, since it is the creation of the imagination of the author.  Whether it is highbrow literature or not should depend on the content, not the container.)  In this case, the imagination starts with a counterfactual history question: what if oil had not become dominant?  The answer assumes the absence of the internal combustion engine and plastic materials and creates an extension of the age of steam with Victorian fashions overlaid with mechanical gadgetry – as exhibited here by the Cottonopolis Coglective (the Manchester Steampunks) along with Rocket the Steampunk Bee (designed by Evelyn Sinclair).Cottonopolis Coglective

It’s the strength of this visual aesthetic that I wanted to bring to the stage, but there’s a pitfall waiting for every Steampunk writer (probably inherent in counterfactual history): the desire to explain everything.  Everything, in this case, is not only the way technology has evolved, but also politics and commerce.  The risk is that the background overwhelms the story – and it was the story that brought the audience into the tent.  That’s why I settled on a whodunnit as a vehicle for bringing Steampunk to the stage.  It has the trappings of the classic country house mystery (albeit without the house).   All the suspects are confined to one place, so the focus is on them and the writer is prevented from exploring the whole of the outside world.  The sociology of the age is implicit in the nature of the characters and the audience can get on with admiring the costumes, absorbing the plot and pointing to the murderer.  (And if they go away ruminating on the role of the professional assassin in buccaneer capitalism, then I honestly won’t mind.)

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

The Morality of Murder

As I’ve mentioned before, customers occasionally make complaints about the suitability of our scripts for their purpose.  These have included protests about scripts for children in which the characters called each other names.  I take the view that plays offer some reflection on the real world where people are not always polite to one another; some customers take a different view, and that’s entirely fair.  For that reason, we make all of our play scripts available to be read in full on our web site before purchase.

Murder Mysteries - the drama of deathInteractive Murder Mysteries are different. They are often played competitively, with the audience assembled in teams with a prize for the team which comes up with the best solution.  In those circumstances, putting the whole mystery – and therefore the solution – on the web site would be an open invitation to cheating.  Thus we don’t display the whole mystery on the web, but we do have “taster packs” for each one, giving a flavour of the structure and style.

We still get questions about the suitability of murder mysteries for particular groups.  I got one call from a guy who said (I think) that he was a Methodist minister.  His church group wanted to put on a murder mystery, but, because they were a church group, they didn’t want any of the characters to be involved in any immorality.  I think they were particularly concerned about sexual immorality, but I detected a certain logical inconsistency that he had not fully thought through.  I felt I had to point out that what he was asking for was a murder for which all the suspects had the purest of motives.

He hung up.

What’s In A Name?

Well, in some cases, the opportunity for libel!

A Legendary Death by Giles BlackGiles Black set A Legendary Death, an interactive murder mystery (the sort where the audience has to work out whodunnit), in the fiercely competitive realm of archaeology.  Events unfold on a (fictitious) TV archaeology show.  Naturally, one of the characters is the show’s host; Giles picked a name, finished the script and thought no more of it.

A few days ago – a long time after we had published the mystery – Giles turned on his television  and was startled to find a history programme fronted by a man with the same name as his fictitious presenter.  Giles isn’t sure how he did this.  He thought he had plucked the name out of thin air as one that fitted the presenter of an archaeology programme, however this might have been a trick of the subconscious, pondering the name of a TV presenter and coming up with just such a name!

Was this libellous?  Well, on the one hand, it was completely unintentional.  On the other hand, Giles’ character was a person of the same name in a very similar profession and, given that A Legendary Death is a murder mystery, the character was portrayed – at the very least – in an unsympathetic way.

Our conclusion was that, however thin, a libel case might be made.  Rather than hand this over to the musings of m’learned friends, we took the decision to change the name of the character.  Giles assures me that he has made up the new name, and that it doesn’t belong to any TV presenter – as far as we know…