For a murder mystery dinner, the host needs some clues

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 12:19 PM

When friends invited us to a murder mystery dinner this past summer, I thought of a few other things I'd rather do: have dental surgery, clean out the garage, go dancing with my mother.

"Oh, come on," my partner, Michael, entreated. "It'll be fun!"

Easy for him to say. The hosts had suggested he wear a costume consisting of a black T-shirt and pants and a pair of sunglasses; my assignment was lederhosen with suspenders, mountain boots and a felt hat with a feather.

What happened next caught us both off guard: I had a ball. So much so that on the way home I hatched a scheme for us to host just such a party of our own. Although the concept works fine any time of the year, a cool fall night seemed perfect, and around Halloween, people would be in the mood for costumes.

But it wouldn't be without pitfalls. From an entertaining standpoint, I'd need to finesse the timing of the meal's courses around the characters, who would need to reveal scripted clues vital to the game's momentum. As a host, I'd have dual responsibilities as a cook and a suspect. The easy solution would be to relegate the meal to the back burner, but that would make me a suspect cook.

To begin, I had to choose a game. Several companies offer boxed sets online in the $20-to-$30 range. The kits generally include host instructions, character booklets for six to 10 players, clues, invitations and name tags, as well as decorating tips and menu suggestions.

I narrowed the field by searching for food-centric games and quickly settled on Murder at Mardi Gras. It takes place at a Garden District mansion masquerade ball, where guests have to determine who strangled Pierre DuPre with a string of antique Mardi Gras beads. One of the suspects, Cayenne Pepper, was DuPre's chef, about to hit the big time with his own cooking show, "Turn Up the Heat."

The role of a lifetime! Once the crime scene was set, everything started to fall into place. I'd fill the house with purple, gold and green Mardi Gras tchotchkes, design a New Orleans-style menu, buy some zydeco CDs and round out the guest list with some chums from the Crescent City. As it turned out, half of the diners that night were New Orleanians (one of them a pastry chef, to boot), so the pressure was on to create a menu that would meet exacting standards.

When the kit arrived, I saw that the party planner guide instructed me not to read any of the character booklets, but that presented a problem. For me, entertaining well is all about reducing variables as much as possible. If it turned out I was the murderer, I'd have to be less involved in the kitchen, and I had to know. The instructions also did not detail the number of segments in the game, so how could I structure the meal and plan its timing? Given the choice between breaking the rules and sacrificing praise for my meal, the decision was obvious: Peek. I leafed through my booklet just far enough to determine the number of chapters (four) and whether I was the murderer. (I spoiled that part of the mystery for myself, but not for anyone else.)

I started with lots of hors d'oeuvres and served them in the living room, allowing plenty of time for invitees to explain their characters and share clues through Chapter 1.

In addition to a full bar, Michael offered New Orleans cocktails such as a French 75 (gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and champagne) and an Obituary (gin, dry vermouth and Herbsaint, an anise-flavored liqueur made in New Orleans). I was the only taker for the Obituary, probably a tactical error, considering how strong it was.

When planning the menu, I'd kept in mind that two of the guests don't eat meat or poultry. For nibbles, I made some Southern staples: pimento cheese with celery, herb-crusted toasted pecans and, because there was some puff pastry in the freezer to use up, cheese straws I fashioned into small palmiers.

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