Librarian Janie Hermann, a 2007 LJ Mover & Shaker, noted early in 2016 that a lot of books were coming out about hygge, the Danish term for taking pleasure in the simple things in life, and suggested that it might be a nice underlying theme for some of our winter programming at New Jersey’s Princeton Public Library. As part of that, we thought, “Why don’t we do something around cozy mysteries?” We could bring in authors, host a themed book group, look into hiring an acting group that performs traveling murder mysteries…. But when we approached our Mistress of Murder, librarian Gayle Stratton, we came up with another idea: create our very own murder mystery based around a fictional murder at the library.
Developing the story
It helped that we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into when we committed to the program. All we knew was that there would be a murder mystery at the library—and that there would be tea and scones.
We had to decide who, what, when, where, why, and how, which turned out to be the easiest part of the process. Framing it in terms of a cozy mystery, and therefore a “lighthearted” murder, and our own library made the process easy and fun. In an uproarious hour we developed the basics: who died, how they died, the motivation for murder, and other possible suspects. Now all we had to do was turn it into an event.
We know whodunit, now what?
The biggest stumbling block was how to present the story in such a way that people could participate. It started to seem completely impossible: the event and the winter holidays were approaching, we were overcommitted and without ideas. Stratton started to work on bits and pieces, such as an email exchange among some of the characters and interviews between the detective and staff, but how we would present this information in a way that would “work” escaped us. Then in mid-December 2016, Stratton saw at the British Library a pop-up crime bookshop decorated as a miniature country house interior, complete with its own mystery for visitors to solve. There was a handout, said Stratton, and “other clues were hidden around the shop. Customers would wander around, hunt for clues, solve the mystery, and enter a drawing for a prize.”
This inspired the Princeton staff’s adaptation. “We could not set up the physical scenes because our library is currently under renovation,” said Stratton, so they decided to “present the clues on a series of boards, like a poster session at a conference,” in the library’s community room. This, Stratton explained, “enabled us to provide customers with the opportunity to wander around the room hunting for clues, at their own pace…. This would solve one of our main objectives, which was to create an engaging and interactive event where people could congregate, talk, go back and forth among the clue boards, trying to piece together the story line.” These were supplemented by videos enacted by library staff (and a few of their family members).
The scene of the crime
On the day of the event, attendees were presented with a guide (picture of the victim, pictures of the suspects, and a place to make notes), and the basic plan was explained. The exhibit began with our autopsy report. On one side of the room we had photos of our suspects with information that related directly to them (transcripts of a police interview, a text message, and emails). On the other side we had transcripts of the group interviews and some additional clues. After 30 minutes or so we advised that we would now begin to present additional evidence in the form of videos.
- Our victim welcomed attendees and introduced the videos of each suspect.
- Each of our three suspects made a “final statement” that implied that they may or may not have had good reason to murder the victim.
- Our victim returned and invited the crowd to speak among themselves.
- Our victim introduced the “denouement” or the murderer’s confession.
- The denouement.
Patrons were encouraged to guess among themselves, between videos. The staff had intended to have everyone vote, after the final statements and before the denouement, but the denouement accidentally aired prematurely. Next time, Dorman said, “customers suggested that we have everyone write down their guesses, and we would pull a correct one for a prize.”
Despite this minor snafu, people loved the program. Our most consistent feedback was, “When will you do this again?”
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
This can be a doable, inexpensive event. The boards we used were mostly collected and reused from other events. You want to incorporate red herrings into your plotline, but things you overlook can sometimes serve the same purpose. For example, in the autopsy we worked from, no underwear was listed. This became a clue of massive interest for our attendees. When I confessed afterward that we had overlooked this piece of information, another attendee explained, within the parameters of our fictional murder, what had happened to the missing underwear.
Bottom line: fun was had by all. You can do it, too—and we would be happy to help.