Where did murder mystery games came from?


I have been asked to speak at the local Women’s contact group in September and, although somewhat daunted by the prospect (I can’t imagine I’m that entertaining) I have nonetheless been putting together my talk.

I’ve been billed as “Jo Smedley talks about her life of crime” – which sounds as if I’m a bit of a jail bird – how dissappointed they are going to be!

Anyway, as part of my talk I’ve been looking into the history of murder mystery games, as I thought others might like to know where they game from and, finding it interesting myself, I thought I would share it on my blog for everyone else.

And so – a brief history of murder mystery games:

To understand where murder mystery games come from, we need to start at the very beginning and look at where murder mystery fiction came from.

Firstly, and this is worth noting, the murder mystery genre simply didn’t exist until the 1800s.

The first detective in fiction was actually Edgar Allen Poe’s “August Dupin” in “Murder in the Rue Morgue” which was published in 1841, but, strangely enough it wasn’t until 1842 that the London metropolitan police appointed their first detective force consisting of just 8 men.

Charles Dickens brought out a detective work called Bleak House in 1853, but even then murder mystery as a genre still hadn’t really taken off.

What changed everything was, strangely enough, a real murder case which happened in 1860. The murder at Road Hill House was the first murder to be extensively reported in the press and it was this case that turned the good people of the UK into amateur sleuths.

Midnight on the 30th June 1860, Road Hill House was just another elegant family manor set in the rural Kent countryside. But by the morning this typical Victorian manor was the scene of a grisly murder. Saville Kent, aged just 3 years was found with his throat slit in the privy. The only real suspects were the members of the household. Saville’s father and mother, his siblings, the nursemaid, and the household staff.

It would be a disturbing case, even in this day and age, but back then, the murder set the British public on edge, they wanted to know everything. If this could happen in a respectable home then what could go on elsewhere? The press responded to the public’s interest by telling them as much as they wanted, printing hearsay and rumours as well as facts.

When the detectives got involved they left no stone unturned in the investigation. But this invasion of privacy was unheard of in Victorian England, where a man’s home was his castle. Needless to say the general public descended on the investigation like vultures, eager for any bits of juicy gossip and they all had their own ideas as to who killed Saville Kent and how it was done, even to the point of contradicting the police force in the national press.

It was this case, and the detective fever that followed it, that drove all future fiction. This case was the blueprint for all murder mystery novels to come. A manor house, a murder, a seemingly respectable family in which lurked secrets, and a singular detective who leaves no stone unturned.

Wickie Collins released Moonstone in 1868, just 8 years after the Road Hill Murder and it was this book that is considered to be the original fictional murder mystery.

Later on, in 887 one of the UKs best known detectives, Sherlock Holmes arrived. During his career Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 4 Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 short stories and Holmes is still one of the worlds best known detective characters to this day.

The Victorians were lovers of all types of parlour games, many of which have survived until this day in boxed form. And, if we were looking for the true origins of murder mystery games, then it was probably sometime in the late 1800’s, after murder mystery fiction was born, that they originated, starting out in the form of after dinner games such as murder in the dark, wink murder and jury. If anyone has ever played wink murder before, then you’ll know that it is a far cry from the modern murder mystery dinner parties. So what happened?

Well, by the 1920’s murder mysteries were growing in popularity, and it was into this golden age of fiction that Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers stepped in. Agatha Christie is best known for just two fictional sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple who are the detectives in approximately two thirds of her novels and short stories.

Since then murder mysteries have become still more popular and have taken over television as well as shelves and shelves in bookshops and libraries with novels for children as well as adults.

But when did murder mystery games hit the scene?

Well, 1935 saw the release of the first murder mystery game known as Jury Box. It’s vastly different from the modern murder mystery games. In Jury Box the players or Jurors are given the scenario of the murder, the evidence presented by the prosecutor and defendant, two photographs of the crime scene and ballot papers. Jurors have to make the decision as to who is guilty and then a real solution is read out.

Cluedo, the first murder mystery board game was released some time later in 1948, and has continued to be popular. However, Cluedo (or Clue) is again, a vastly different game to the modern role playing dinner party mysteries.

So when did these murder mystery dinner party games first start?

Well the earliest mention I have found of these role playing murder mystery games in their present format is in the 1980s when they were thought to be a bit of a one year wonder in the game shops. Back then the scenarios were simple. The acting directions minimal and the games relied on the guests being comfortable ad-libbing responses to each other’s questions.

However, this one hit wonder clearly didn’t fall entirely flat, and in the last 20 years those basic games have increased in complexity into the more complex role playing dinner party games we have today.

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