WHERE DO YOU START? Mysteries, My Students, and Me

Every spring, I commit the ultimate act of selfishness: I drag my high school drama students into the swirling maelstrom of my GAD (Golden Age of Detection) addiction by putting them into groups and giving them the assignment of conceiving, scripting, and performing an original murder mystery in the classic tradition.

I don’t make it easy on them in the least. First, I give them a taste by showing them the 1978 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. (You learn from the best.) As the years have flown by, my students have recognized fewer and fewer of the superstar cast list. A few of them know Angela Lansbury because their grandmothers watched Murder She Wrote, and many of them spot Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter movies. This year, the freshman boys got excited when they saw that Rosalie Otterbourne was played by Olivia Hussey, since they had studied Romeo and Juliet in English class and got to see her bare breasts in the Zefferelli movie.

I live to please.

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But, by and large, they enjoy the game of crime solving, and when we get to the part where Hercule Poirot gathers the suspects in the lounge to explain all, I stop the film and pass out a ballot listing all the characters and asking the students to pick who they think killed Linnet Doyle and how they know. Every year, at least one student gets the right answer, and, although they don’t always quite know how they know, I’m still impressed.

Then the fun begins. I pass out the assignment sheet and explain the complex task before them. First, they must choose a decade and year before the millenium. I do this to force them to research some history to add as background to their story and to make sure their mystery isn’t about a bunch of high school students slaughtering each other at the prom. The most popular eras have been 1920’s Prohibition (with the murder usually taking place in a speakeasy and involving gangsters) and the 1960s (involving hippies and/or the Vietnam War as background), but I’ve seen plays set everywhere from a Wild West town to a submarine.

Then the students have to create their mystery, with a distinctive setting capable of hosting a closed circle of suspects, a suitably vile victim, and a colorful and eccentric set of suspects. I make them discuss whether they want a professional police detective or an amateur sleuth. The advantage of the former is that (s)he has the power of the police force behind him/her; the latter has a likelier chance of being on the scene before the murder is committed and catching important clues, plus an amateur can be as eccentric as, say . . . Hercule Poirot!

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We talk a lot about clues, both the physical ones like pipe cleaners and handkerchiefs, and the ones I love that are either verbal or psychological. That’s another of the reasons I make them set their mysteries in the past. Modern TV procedurals are all about DNA and blood spatter. I tell my students about some of my favorite GAD clues: the wax flowers on the malachite table, the suspect who knew (but shouldn’t have known) that the unidentified explosive in the tank was nitroglycerin, the way we are led to misinterpret why a person is breathing hard. I warn the kids that they must insert their clues fairly so that the audience at least has a chance to figure out the solution, and I reinforce this by turning the whole assignment into a contest: at the point of revealing the solution, the group stops, passes out their own ballot and has the audience vote. The group that fools the most audience members, all while “playing fair,” wins the contest, and each member gets a prize. (I would tell you what the prize is, but I think one or two students might be checking out my blog!)

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The creation process is as painful as you would imagine. You must realize, especially those of you who write mysteries yourselves, that creating a detective novel is hard enough alone, so having it done by committee can result in some group members contemplating murders of their own. Cooperative learning is hard enough when you’re putting together a presentation on the Greek Gods or World War II; trying to put together a logical, mystifying and fun detective story in committee can defeat the best of us. But this is where the admittedly most selfish aspect of the assignment comes in: I wander from group to group, listen to their ideas and to the problems that have arisen, and I try to help.

You see, all my life I have wanted to write mysteries. I have been coming up with ideas for decades, most of them in the form of descriptive casts of characters, outlines or synopses, and detailed maps of country homes that nobody will ever visit. I think my computer contains half a dozen really nice first chapters! In the 80’s and 90’s, I teamed up with a friend in the Sierra foothills of California and wrote eight or ten mystery plays as a fundraiser for the local theatre company. All my ideas stemmed from the classic mysteries I had grown up with, in settings as diverse as a Venetian palazzo, a 1940’s radio studio, a movie set, Vegas in the 1950’s, and so on. Members of the theatre company would play the parts, and the performance area encompassed pretty much the whole downtown. It was such a thrill to see my words, corny as they could sometimes be, acted out before an enthusiastic audience of would-be detectives.

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This assignment admittedly gives me the chance to relive that experience each spring. But more significantly, my hope is that creating their own mystery will allow the whodunit bug to bite some of these kids as it did me when I was ten and my babysitter Steve Levy related the entire story of And Then There Were None to me. Each year I get excited about what ideas my classes will come up with. As you can imagine, much of the time the murder plots are fairly uninspired; it helps to have at least one self-proclaimed author-to-be in each group, but they can be few and far between. Every year I get the same questions from one group or another:

  • Can we make the detective be the killer?
  • Can it be an accident?
  • Can it be a suicide that looks like a murder?
  • How many people can we kill?

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Bloodthirsty savages! Granted, most of their exposure to the genre comes from those tiresome slasher films that polluted the cinematic waters for decades. (Okay, Scream is wonderful, but that’s because it both makes fun of the genre and delivers a fine mystery.) I don’t allow any slasher pic-type stories, and I tend to limit the number of murders to two, explaining that they don’t want to diminish the suspect pool too much, and they want to focus on ratiocination rather than on creating a massacre.

Sometimes, a happy accident results in a powerful instance of live theatre. One year, a group developed a mystery set in Victorian England that involved derring do in an opera house. The costumes they gathered were wonderful, but the play itself was so-so. Then, on performance day, the young woman who had spearheaded the whole project arrived with a full-blown case of laryngitis and her mother, who volunteered to play her daughter’s role for her. Her presence inspired the kids to rise to a new level of artistic cohesion. Naturally, I gave the mom an “A.”

This year the project has just begun, and already I can see some wonderful ideas spring boarding from the fertile minds of my assorted 14- and 15-year-olds. My favorite so far is set in 1972 and involves a New York police squad. The top cop is female and a lesbian, and the good ol’ boys who make up the bulk of the squad resent everything about her. The diverse cast is exploring the burgeoning civil rights movement of the times even as they begin the task of weaving suspects and clues together. Another group is setting their mystery in ancient Rome, circa 110 C.E.. They’ve already begun their research into the story of a selfish ruler who invites his enemies to feast with him. Bad idea, Emperor Trajen!

The students who know me are aware of my great love of mysteries. Every two or three years, I direct a whodunit as part of our school’s theatre season. I tend to carry a mystery around with me to read during advisory. More and more of my students are becoming aware of my blog. And of course, anyone who has taken my class goes through the rite of passage of Murder Mysteries. It’s a daunting task I have set for them, and I feel their frustration a lot of the time, but I also experience their excitement when (or if) it all comes together.

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And you know what? One of the things we teachers set out to do is to guide our students to develop problem-solving skills. I grant you, it might be a little odd for an outsider to overhear a conversation about how to serve poisoned bouillabaisse at the dinner party and ensure that only Aunt Flavia will die or whether it’s possible for Lord Babbington to be stabbed in the garden, then walk into his study, lock the door, and die. But it’s all music to my demented ears! I can’t help thinking a number of things when I hear this kind of talk:

  • Maybe I am teaching people to work together.
  • Maybe I am teaching problem solving skills.
  • Maybe I’m inspiring future murderers, God forbid.

Best of all . . . maybe a couple of these kids will think back and remember this assignment with some fondness. And then maybe they’ll pick up a mystery and read it. Maybe they’ll even write one all by themselves. After this assignment, flying solo should be a snap!

High School Student Taking Notes in Class              12918-004-85BA5361

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19 thoughts on “WHERE DO YOU START? Mysteries, My Students, and Me

  1. I absolutely love this assignment, Brad! It shows clearly how students can be engaged when they have ownership of what they’re doing, but still have the guidance they need. And what a way to get them thinking about the dynamics of a play, too! There’s nothing like a murder mystery to spark tension, suspense, romance, and a lot more. I’m impressed.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In unrelated news, I’ve just photoshopped my birth certificate, shaved, moisturised and had laser surgery to make me appear 20 years younger and will be joining your school as a student in September…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Well, as I just mentioned to JJ, locked room is so technical that they don’t give this one a try. Maybe I can push one of this year’s groups to give it a try. Right now, the Roman group is trying to figure out how to poison the emperor, and they might try the trick found in Sad Cypress.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Very interesting assignment! The questions that you students ask you every year were questions Agatha Christie asked herself, and answered, in one book or another. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I would (figuratively) kill to have students like you and JJ in my class for this project, Kate. Needless to say, it’s very difficult, and they don’t all love it. But one student told me at the start of the semester how excited she was that we were doing mysteries, and my heart got all warm! 🙂

      Like

  4. Wow! That’s some great (and hard) work on your part and on that of the students. Wish our teachers had been this innovative.

    And the only actor I recognised when I saw Death on the Nile was I.S. Johar.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Do you mind my asking what you thought of Mr. Johar’s character? It’s original to the film and brings up some issues that have been discussed elsewhere.

      Like

  5. I never had such an engaged or interested/interesting teacher or professor. I wish I had. I wish my teachers had challenged my creative side as much as my intellect. It’s a pity. I think your assignment is brilliant and your certain to produce at least a few future novelist/screenwriters or directors. You are encouraging and inspiring them while teaching them story structure. I would have killed for a teacher like you. Sorry for the pun … well not really. It fits. You have a fabulous job. You’re lucky you get to do what you love and you get to help form the minds of future creative geniuses.

    Melissa @ Sugar Crime Scene – Crime Scene Resources For Fiction Writers

    Like

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