Showing posts with label fair play. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fair play. Show all posts

04 July 2021

Dinner and Death

Last Saturday evening, I dined in a real restaurant for the first time since the coronavirus broke upon our shores. That same evening at the same restaurant in the heart of Orlando’s International Drive tourist center, a man was murdered.

It didn’t particularly surprise anyone. Most attendees expected something of the sort because homicides occur frequently at Sleuths Mystery Dinner Show.

Squire's Inn cast
Our show, not our cast

The occasion was Haboob’s birthday party arranged by her daughter who invited me (thanks, Kathy). I’d never attended a mystery show and looked forward to it.

Murder 1

The first mystery involved parking. The car lot was full. Shops and restaurants surrounding the theatre share a garage with Icon Park, a 20-acre entertainment complex, which includes a Madame Tussaud’s and a London Eye-type ride called The Wheel, approximately 122m (~400ft) in diameter.

Here, developers confused ‘arcade’ and ‘parkade’. The garage is loaded with exit signs, none of them useful. This results in cars milling like microbes, trying to decipher a way out. One unfortunate Hyundai has been circling since 2017. Family members rope up buckets from below and tote gasoline up stairs to refuel it. My friend Geri and I could have happily murdered the garage’s architect, but mayhem was supposed to occur in a dining establishment, not a garage.

a Constable Connie
A constable Connie, not our
scare-your-pants-off Connie

Murder 2

Sleuths operates two theatres and we found ourselves led to slaughter in Theatre II, a surprisingly large hall with a shallow stage along one side. There, a couple of dozen round tables accommodated up to ten guests. Real tablecloths, cloth serviettes, and real butter provided nice touches.

Let it be said, visitors don’t come for the dining experience. Chicken and vegetarian options were available, but our entire party ordered prime rib, a $6 extra disappointment. I could offer two or three smartass comments, but the less said, the better. Our neighbors ordered lasagna and voiced no complaint. Desserts were tasty and the wine was unexpectedly drinkable.

Waitress Nicole supplied us with tea and soda, and as far as I could discern, took no notes when doling out drinks and desserts to the correct parties. While I’m in a complimenting mood, thanks to Miss DeSantis (no relation to our dreadful governor) for help, kindness, and patience making reservations.

Staging a Death

In interactive murder mysteries, guests participate in the experience. They mingle with victims and suspects, and handle and inspect clues. This was not those.

Rather we are presented with one of five abbreviated plays, a comedy where four actors play five rôles. The skit takes place in an English Inn, placing the actors at risk of murdering the mother tongue worse than I. Fortunately, the cast treats dialect with a light touch.

the real Constable Connie
Late update! @ Chris Sowers
The REAL Constable Connie
who owned the rôle

We meet the characters. Murder ensues. The law makes her entrance.

Holy Chautauqua!

The clear star of the show is Constable Connie Crabtree, whose actor also plays the crotchety murder victim. This doesn’t tell half of it and the masculine noun is not an affectation. Although the victim is male, the constable is female and… no, wait. See, the heavily made-up and considerably frightening Constable Connie is played in drag by an actor I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.

But funny, hilariously funny. Political correctness has robbed our society of so much humor, it’s refreshing to let down our guard and enjoy witty innuendo and double entendres without clubbing us with correctness. God save the Queen.

On With the Show

The play draws to a close. The cast invites the audience to help solve the mystery by formulating questions– one per table– of the characters, mostly concerning conversational threads left dangling.

The audience was paying attention; several queries were highly pertinent. Despite my great renown as a world famous SleuthSayer, my question about parentage wasn’t chosen by my table, although it turned out to be the heart of the mystery. (So there!) Constable Connie’s acidic tongue kept questions moving, especially when a couple of tables had enjoyed a bit too much of the not-too-bad wine.

mystery worksheets for notes
mystery worksheet


The play is not The Mousetrap. I found two chinks in the mystery itself, both unexplained gaps– or sudden leaps. Actors abruptly drop a comment that the victim fathered another character without us being previously presented with that fact. In the free-wheeling delivery of the play, was it overlooked?

Likewise, the audience had almost universally settled upon one cast member as the murderer, but the constable informed us it was quite another without linking evidence. Unless another clue had been left out, the choice of perpetrator seemed almost random. Perhaps we missed hearing a hint, but if we did, so did our half of the room.

I haven’t seen the script, but possibly a bit or two was inadvertently omitted. Still, we figured out the key to the plot and motive, and besides, the real point was the comedy. You don’t read Janet Evanovich for the plot, you read her stories for the laughter. Same with this play, Squires Inn.

Mouths of Babes

A number of young children sat near the front and loved it. Although one character in the play had paid heavily and labored for years to purchase the inn, the play’s sole woman (not counting Connie) inherited it, leaving the man with nothing. The constable asked the kids if the woman should share the inn with the man and they– almost entirely girls– shouted out a resounding No!

Oh sheesh. They’ve been listening to their mothers.

The theatre awarded birthday gifts and door prizes of a surprisingly useful magnifying glass. That was a superb touch.

At nearly 10:30 that night, I helped Geri find her car in the garage. I am not in the least kidding– cars were still queued snailing on the third level, trying to find their way out.


From the viewpoint of a professional crime reader and writer, Squires Inn didn’t come off as a fair-play mystery with clues that pointed unambiguously to a single perpetrator. But as Hamlet said, “The play’s the thing.” It is a lot of fun and definitely worth the trip. You might not solve a mystery, you could die laughing.

Have a happy and safe 4th of July!

03 January 2012

Letters and Numbers

    Sometimes it takes me a while to notice new fads, but when I finally do I suddenly start to spot them everywhere around me.  That’s what happened this year with the on-line game “Words with Friends,” an app take on scrabble that is played over the internet.

    First Alec Baldwin gets kicked off of an airplane for playing it, and I ask my kids (adults, but still kids) “hey, what’s that game all about.”  They roll their eyes.

   The next thing I know I am bombarded by the game.  Driving from Washington, D.C. to St. Louis for Christmas Eve my kids are playing the game on their cell phones, on line (thanks to 3 and 4 G) with their friends back in Washington D.C.  Then on Christmas night, with my wife’s family in Vincennes, Indiana, I look around the room and six different family members are clicking on their phones playing with people either across the room or across the country.  Well, a bit of a disruption for Christmas, but as Mr. Baldwin observed on Saturday Night Live, at least it’s “one of those intelligent games.”

    All of this got me to thinking about what kinds of games appeal to what kinds of people.  As to the aforementioned Words with Friends,  I am not bad at coming up with suggestions for words for my kids as we drive across the country.  But my role is, at best, "of counsel" --  the game holds no real interest for me. 

   Several years ago a query was posted on the Readers’ Forum at the Mystery Place, the forum hosted by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  The question posed was how many of the readers of those magazines were also cross-word puzzle aficionados.  A number of readers reponded that they were cross-word fans, but a very prominent contributor, Jon Breen (who for over thirty years wrote The Jury Box for EQMM and who is a heralded author of mystery short stories and novels) replied that while he didn’t do many crosswords, he was a big fan of Sudoku puzzles.  “Aha,” I thought.  “I have that in common with Jon.”  Something about how my mind works doesn’t adapt all that well to crossword clues.  And I am terrible at chess – one of the worst chess players ever.   But Sudoku puzzles – not only can I solve them, I often seek them out for intellectual diversion. 

    What’s the attraction?  Well, principally it seems to me that the Sudoku puzzle runs very close to the guidelines for classic whodunit mystery stories, ‘fair play’ mysteries, which are my favorites both to write and to read.  The Sudoku puzzle, like a golden age mystery, is (literally) walled off.  All of the suspects are known, and the game is a contained one of “fair play” since enough clues are always revealed so that a diligent player has the opportunity (if not always the ability) to glean the culprit that must necessarily occupy each box.   Some of the relationships behind the various boxes are not in the first instance obvious, but all ultimately can be deduced (albeit often by those with abilities beyond my pay grade). 

    Thinking back to Jon’s answer on the Mystery Forum, it occurred to me that perhaps the types of games a person likes bears a rough relationship to the type of mystery stories that person likes.  I suspect, as an example, that a reader who thrives on historical mysteries might be more attracted by crossword puzzles – where solutions rely on the player’s ability to apply knowledge of outside events to the puzzle.  Whether or not this is true, I know that one of the reasons I like Sudoku puzzles is that they come about as close to a fair play mystery as you can get in game form. 

    Background for anyone who somehow is new to the game:  A Sudoku puzzle is a variant of a Latin square, that is, a grid with n different symbols, each occurring exactly once in each row and exactly once in each column.  The classic Sudoku puzzle contains nine rows and nine columns.  Each row contains nine number squares.  The puzzle itself is also divided into nine internal boxes of nine squares each.  The goal of the game, for those not familiar with the process, is a simple but maddening one:  Each row contains the numbers one through nine, as does each column.  And every number can appear only once in each row, each column, and each internal box of nine squares.  For each puzzle there is one, and only one, solution.

Howard S. Garns
    The Sudoku puzzle has an interesting history, and variations of the puzzle go back centuries.  But for modern purposes, Wikipedia (where were we without it?) reports that the version we are all now familiar with  was most likely designed anonymously in 1979 by Howard Garns, a 74-year-old retired architect and freelance puzzle constructor from Indiana.  Mr. Garns puzzles were first published by (drum roll)  Dell Magazines as Number Place.   While readers of SleuthSayers no doubt first think of Dell as the publisher of EQMM and AHMM, it is the Dell Sudoku magazines that you are much more likely to encounter on the dwindling racks in the magazine section of your dwindling local book stores.

    The USNET news group has reportedly determined that there are 6,670,903,752,021,072,936,960 possible puzzles that can populate a nine by nine Sudoku grid.  But in each board, if the minimally required hints are given, there can be only one solution, only one number that can occupy each box.  And that is the essential similarity, it seems to me, that links the puzzle and classic fair play mystery stories.  The art of constructing each is to fairly give enough clues that the mystery demonstrably can be solved.  And the challenge in constructing both a difficult fair play mystery and a difficult Sudoku is not to reveal the answer, but to hide it.  To achieve the most diabolical level of success requires the designer of the game, and the author of the story,  to give all of the information that is necessary but to do so in a way that will hide the actual solution.  In other words, the game is not “show and tell,” it is “hide and seek.”

Professor James Moriarty
    For an example of the similarities between the two genres we need look no further than Sherlock Holmes.  Professor Moriarty, who Holmes describes in The Valley of Fear as “[t]he greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld” is also, according to Holmes, discernible only as a shark beneath the surface:  Invisible, but nonetheless the force behind all nefarious schemes.  So, too, in a difficult Sudoku puzzle it is not uncommon for one, or even two numbers to be completely absent from the grid when the game begins – the missing number, or numbers, are an integral part of the “plot” of the puzzle, but, at least at the beginning, they can only be discerned by the reaction of other numbers that surround their invisible presence.

    Unlike mystery stories there are, of course, more precise constraints on the number of clues that must be given in a Sudoku.  While it apparently cannot be mathematically proven, the supposition among math theorists is that a full Sudoku grid of 81 boxes must minimally contain at least 17 filled in “clue” boxes in order for the final solution to be both discernible and completely unique.  But the fact of “uniqueness” is, again, an attribute shared with a golden age mystery  – in each, if you pay attention, and engage the deductive process, there is one and only one solution.

    Needless to say there are some Sudoku puzzles that are so difficult that they can only be solved by logical reasoning that is too complex for most human minds.  In the world of Sudoku puzzles this has spawned websites, the development of computer programs, formulae and the advent of discussion groups, all aimed at developing tools to decipher the seemingly impossible.  But in at least one respect the mystery story has the upper hand.  When a Sudoku completely baffles the player the only option (if your game is published in a periodical) is to wait a day to read a published solution (or hit that “hint” button if you are playing electronically.)  But with a mystery story you can just go on reading and wait for the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Poirot, Nero Wolfe, or Ellery Queen, to offer up the solution that has stumped the mere mortal reader.

25 October 2011

Fair Play Mysteries and the Land of the Rising Sun

 And on the Eighth Day by Ellery Queen,
 Japanese Edition
     Last spring I received a completely unexpected email asking for permission to publish The Book Case in a new anthology.  The volume is to be titled The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, and will include a number of Ellery Queen pastiches including, in addition to The Book Case, Mike Nevin’s classic Queen pastiche Open Letter to Survivors.

    There is sort of a surprise ending to all of this, but like most surprise endings if you think about it that revelation should have been anticipated:  The anthology will be published in Japan.  The stories will all be translated into Japanese.

    When last I posted on SleuthSayers it was back in September, and  I began by mentioning my lunch with Mike Nevins, emeritus professor of Law at St. Louis University Law School and noted mystery writer, critic and author of the fore-mentioned Open Letter to Survivors.  As mentioned then, Mike and I spent a good deal of time reminiscing about the writings of John D. MacDonald.  As our conversation turned to the growing lack of availability of MacDonald mysteries, even the Travis McGee series, Mike observed that with the exception of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle publication of a mystery writer’s work usually begins to disappear shortly after the author’s own demise.  I mentioned the complete lack of newly-published Ellery Queen mysteries in the United States and Mike shook his head dolefully and cautioned me not to expect any turn-around.

    Not in the United States, that is.

    But surprisingly the taste among readers for newly-published Golden Age mysteries varies drastically around the world.  My Belgian friend and sometimes collaborator Kurt Sercu, in his website Ellery Queen, a Website on Deduction, has noted that there have been new editions of Ellery Queen mysteries published in Russia, Spain and Italy during the last decade.  But the best exemplar of this is Japan, where the Golden Age fair play whodunit is alive and well, and where Ellery thrives. 

Iiki Yusan
    All of this was brought home to me yet again last week when Kurt asked me to edit an interview he conducted recently by email exchange with Iiki Yusan, who is the leader of the Ellery Queen Fan Club in Japan.  Kurt’s interview should be on-line in about a week, and can be accessed here when it goes on-line.  But I couldn’t resist offering up a bit of a prequel.

    First, by way of amazing statistics, Iiki estimated during the course of the interview that the percentage of books in print for Golden Age mystery writers in Japan looks something like this:

Agatha Christie: 90-100%
Ellery Queen: 80-90%
John Dickson Carr: 60-70%
Rex Stout: 10-20%

    While I do not know the relevant percentages in the United States, I do know that there are virtually no Ellery Queen works currently in print, and if you gave me $5.00 and required me to bet with it my wager would be that there are substantially more Rex Stout volumes available in the United States than there are Queen mysteries.   So what augurs a different result in Japan?  Why is Agatha Christie still popular in the United States while Ellery Queen has virtually disappeared?  Apparently there is something about fair play detective stories, and particularly those of Queen, that continues to resonate in Japan in a way that these stories no longer call out to the reading public in the United States.

Frederic Dannay and Ed Hoch 
    All of this goes beyond mere re-publication of the Ellery Queen mysteries.  For example, I was astounded to learn during the course of editing Kurt’s interview with Iiki that in Japan in 1980 there was a television series, modeled after Alfred Hitchcock Presents, that was hosted by none other than Frederic Dannay, just two years before his death in 1982. Queen works have continued to be the subject of movies, television shows and theatrical productions in Japan up to the present.  And Japan also has produced book-length treatises analyzing the works of Queen.  Iiki himself has authored Ellery Queen Perfect Guide (2004) and Reviews of Ellery Queen (2010).  In World Wars and Ellery Queen (1992) Kiyosi Kasai, traces the development of Golden Age murder mysteries in the context of the two world wars and concludes that the rise of the genre, in which well-developed characters were murdered, was a reaction to the countless faceless deaths of war.   And in The Logic of the Detective Story (2007) Kentaro Komori spends a full volume analyzing the deductive logic of detective fiction (especially Ellery Queen) by comparing the analytic approaches utilized in the novels with the philosophical reasoning of the likes of Bertrand Russel and Kurt Godel.  I doubt that such rigorous analyses of the works of Queen were ever undertaken in the United States, even when the works were in their heyday.

    Modern detective stories written by Japanese writers also continue to reflect the works of Queen.  In his on-line article Ellery Queen is Alive and Well and Living in Japan author Ho-Ling Wong reports that the new wave of fair play whodunits in Japan is referred to as the "new orthodox" detective story -- a story that hearkens back to Golden Age mysteries but does so by incorporating the fair play formula into modern settings.  And, as Ho-Ling Wong references, Ellery Queen's presence continues in these works.
 Other popular writers of the New Orthodox School are Norizuki Rintarō and Alice Arisugawa.  Both writers are strongly influenced by Ellery Queen. Both of them have named their protagonists after themselves, like their great example. Both writers often insert a Challenge to the Reader in their stories.  As one can derive from his first name, Arisugawa often delves into imagery of Alice in Wonderland, just like Ellery Queen, while Norizuki Rintarō’s characters mimic Ellery Queen almost exactly.  In fact, his protagonist is a writer, also called Norizuki Rintarō, who helps his father, a police inspector, mirroring the Ellery Queen – Inspector Queen dynamic.
    What is behind all of this continued interest in fair play detective stories in Japan?  Who can say?  But for whatever reason Golden Age mysteries have struck a chord there.  Mysteries founded on the deductive reasoning process continue to be one of the most popular forms of writing in Japan.  The following quote, still a bit stilted in translation, shows up often on the internet as an explanation for the popularity of the genre in Japan.  Predictably, it is offered up in an imagined conversation with Ellery Queen set forth in The Murders at the Ten-cornered Residence (1991) written by the popular Japanese writer Ayatsuji Yukito.

Ellery, the slim handsome young man says: 
To me, detective fiction is a kind of intellectual game. A logical game that gives readers sensations about detectives or authors. These are not to be ranked high or low. So I don't want the once popular “social sect” realism. Female employee murdered in a deluxe suite room; criminal police's tireless investigation eventually brings in the murdering boss-cum-boyfriend--All cliché. Political scandals of corruption and ineptness; tragedies of distortion of modern society; these are also out of date. The most appropriate materials for detective fiction, whether accused untimely or not, are famous detectives, grand mansions, suspicious residents, bloody murders, puzzling situation, earth-shattering schemes . . . .   Made up things are even better. The point is to enjoy the pleasure in the world of reasoning. But intellectual prerequisites must be completely met.    

    All of this makes me wish that I could read Japanese!  Be sure to check Kurt’s website in the next week or so for the full interview with Iiki. 

(Clip art courtesy of Kurt Sercu and Ellery Queen:  a Website on Deduction except as noted.)