When my middle school patrons got it in their heads that they wanted a murder mystery program, I was less than enthused. It sounded like a logistical nightmare. But they kept asking, and I couldn’t think of a good excuse besides “That sounds too hard for me.” Not a great attitude for someone who’s always saying she wants their ideas.
I’ve seen presentations and write-ups from other libraries that have had after-hours murder mystery dinners, but I thought that was too much added complication for my first murder mystery, and the kids hadn’t asked for that. So I held a no-food mystery on a weekend afternoon. (I didn’t mention the lack of food in the marketing, naturally.)
The kids also said they wanted the type of mystery where they play roles, and one of them is the murderer. I agreed that this kind of game is the most fun, but I was concerned about attendance. My program attendance varies widely, and it’s tough to predict numbers or to get people to commit to things. Usually about 3/4 of the registered patrons show up.
This program works best with 10-15 players. It was more preparation-intensive than most of my programs, but was less work than I’d feared it would be. I ran it with no help from other staff (aside from borrowing some objects from them for props). It was two hours long, but I think one-and-a-half hours might have been a slightly better timeframe.
I based my program on a kit from Anyone’s Guess by Janet Dickey. She has downloadable PDF kits for grades 6-9. Even better, her kits are written specifically for libraries! They’re full of tips on library-specific concerns for this type of program. I chose the kit “Rock n’ Roll Over DEAD” because I felt music was the theme that would appeal to the most kids.
I highly recommend this kit. It contains thorough directions, character descriptions,
scripts, prop lists, and printable clues. The mystery made sense and was solvable but not too easy. It was also not so obvious that one person could figure it out and tell everyone else and it would be case closed; there was lots of room for debate.
The plot of the “Rock n’ Roll Over DEAD” kit is that the library is having a battle of the bands, and one of the staff members running it is murdered. The characters are teen patrons and library staff members, and are all suspects.
I made some changes to the kit so it better fit my library. I’ll talk about those in a minute, but for now, there’s one important one: in Ms. Dickey’s kit, the characters are played by staff member or volunteers; I changed it so that the kids working on the mystery would also play the characters.
Before we started, I gave everyone a slip of paper and told them to indicate whether or not they wanted to be considered for the role of the murderer. I didn’t want anyone to feel put on the spot by this important role. Also, the murderer could not solve the mystery, and I wanted to make sure they were OK with that.
The flow of the game goes like this:
-The staff member in charge describes the plot.
-Each character reads off an introduction and a statement.
-The players have time to investigate the scene of the crime. They’re encouraged to interact in character. (Some kids got into character, some not so much. Though it’s more fun when you’re in character, it works either way.)
-The group reconvenes, and each character reads off a second statement, which is what they told the police.
-The group investigates the library director’s office (which you have set up, with clues, in another area of your meeting room or wherever you happen to be playing)
-The group investigates the detective’s desk (also set up in another area of the room).
-At this point I allowed the kids to roam freely into all three scenes. (Just make sure they aren’t hiding or hogging clues.)
-After much investigation, goofing off with props, flinging of accusations, and gentle prompting from the staff member in charge, everyone reconvenes. Each kid writes down who they think is the perpetrator, how they did it, and why.
-The staff member collects the sheets and judges whose is most accurate. Meanwhile, the kids share their theories.
-The staff member tells the “murderer” to reveal herself. Then the staff member explains whatever the murderer left out of her explanation.
What I Changed
As I said, the biggest change I made from the kit was that I had the kids play the roles, since that was what they requested. I made each character a sheet with their scripts and a few facts about them, like their interests, desires, secrets, and which other characters they like or dislike. A lot of these I pulled from the original kit, but I did make some things up just to make it more fun or “scandalous.” For example, there was one character who was a (fictional) librarian. I made this librarian also the parents of two of the kid characters. Then I had the fact that the kids were secretly smoking cigarettes on their character sheets, and I left a clue about it on detective’s desk. The “mother” was very upset with her “children” when she found out.
Because I was concerned about attendance, I made a few “optional” characters. These were characters who could be easily removed from the game. They were not involved in the crime, and didn’t have close relationships with the non-optional characters. Every character was involved in some kind of drama, but the optional characters’ drama was irrelevant to the murder, and mostly involved other optional characters. There were clues pertaining to their drama that could easily be removed from the game if no one filled the optional roles. These clues served as red herrings when in play. It took a bit of logical finagling to make this work, but it was entirely doable.
I ended up with enough attendance that we needed all but two of the optional characters. I didn’t mention that some of them were optional, and nobody seemed to suspect. I did tell the kids that we were “cutting” two characters, and had them cross off anything involving those characters on their character sheets.
I changed the names of the schools and other local places in the script to actual ones in our community. (I did not, however, use the names of any real people.)
I made all the roles non-gendered and changed them to unisex names. I wanted everyone to be able to choose the character gender they were most comfortable with. I ended up being glad I did this, because one patron identified as female but chose to play a male and had a lot of fun with it.
I updated some of the language to make it more current. (No offense to Ms. Dickey–things get outdated fast in the world of teens!)
I remade a few of the paper clues so that they looked either more current or more like things in our community. I even made a “disciplinary notice” on a sheet with the local school district’s logo, which fooled some of my coworkers!
I rigged the handing-out of roles to create what I thought would be a good game. I knew most of the kids there, and I gave the role of the murderer to someone I knew would be into it and wouldn’t give it away. There was a real-life sibling pair who I made siblings in the game, and I gave the role of the librarian/parent to an 8th grader with a rather parental personality. If kids came alone and I didn’t know them well, I gave them a role that would get them talking a lot to the other kids, so they didn’t feel left out from the library regulars who all knew each other.
The favorite prop was the handcuffs I had on the detective’s desk. I did allow the kids to handcuff one another, but only after the handcuff-ee specifically said they were OK with it. Make sure you get the kind you can get out of without a key.
If the kids got too deep into analyzing a red herring, I suggested something to shoot holes in their theories, to try to get them to think in the right direction. Occasionally if an important clue wasn’t getting enough attention, I would move it somewhere very obvious or hand it to someone and say, “Did anyone look at this yet?”
How It Turned Out
One patron correctly guessed the perpetrator, but had the motive a little wrong. Many had the motive partly correct, and almost all had the means correct. This worked out well because there was some sense of success for everyone. Everyone seemed happy with how the mystery concluded. I haven’t tried doing this program again, but I may in the future.
If you want to chat about murder mystery library programs, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.