To Stage a Murder

A few months ago (on April 13th, to be exact), I happened upon the idea of hosting a murder mystery party in a chance conversation.

I let the idea stew in my mind for awhile, and then realized that I absolutely had to do it. So, I spent several hours scouring the Internet for an appropriate scenario. Eventually, I found one I liked at Night of Mystery. Called Murder at the Juice Joint, the mystery was set in a 1920’s speakeasy, the haunt of rival mobsters.

I’m a huge fan of 1920’s fashion and my apartment – with its bare brick walls and concrete floor – could easily be turned into a plausible imitation of a speakeasy. Once I had chosen the right scenario, everything else began to fall into place.

I did some preliminary research into how to run a murder mystery party and emailed an event invitation to everyone on the 20-suspect guest list so I could begin collecting RSVPs.

Here’s a modified version of the deco-style event invitation I sent out:

Murder Mystery Party Invitation

(The fonts are Park Lane and Party at Gatsby’s – both free on FontSpace)

After that, the real fun began. Always a stickler for detail, I researched all of the details of the party meticulously – everything down to the brand of rum in the punch and gin in the rickeys (not to mention the recipes themselves) were from the 20’s.

Below you can find all of the party details, along with a few photos of the setting from the night of (you can see the characters and costumes here).

THE DRINKS
Gin was the most popular liquor of the Prohibition era (unlike many other spirits, gin doesn’t require a significant amount of time to age, and the botanicals masked the flavor of home-distilled moonshine), so I knew from the beginning that the party would not be complete without a gin cocktail. Simple to make in large quantities, the incredibly popular gin rickey – a variation of the classic G&T – won the day.

Drink Menu

Gin Rickey
1 oz. gin
1/2 oz. lime juice
1 oz. club soda

Since there were going to be 20 guests at the party and I didn’t want to spend all night behind a bar, I opted to fill out the rest of the drinks menu with two 20’s-era punches, one featuring champagne and the other rum. The only popular Prohibition-era spirit I left off the menu was whiskey – in large part because I simply can’t stand the taste, but also because whiskey cocktails are more finicky to mix than a simple punch or rickey and modern taste buds tend not to enjoy the whiskey-maraschino-and-orange-juice creations that Prohibition bartenders came up with in order to mask the taste of inferior whiskey.

Champagne Punch
1 cup simple syrup
2 tablespoons triple sec
6 tablespoons lemon juice (2 lemons)
1 quart champagne (or prosecco)
2 cups black tea
4 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons dark rum
1 quart club soda

Mix the champagne, brandy, rum, triple sec, lemon juice, and tea. Sweeten to taste with the simple syrup and pour into a punch bowl over a large piece of ice. Add club soda just before serving.

I modified the Planter’s Punch recipe slightly before posting it here. The authentic version – which to me seemed like it would be unbearably sweet – included 2 cups more each of pineapple juice and orange juice, as well as a cup of simple syrup.

Planter’s Punch

4 cups pineapple juice

4 cups orange juice

1 1/2 cups light rum

1 1/2 cups dark rum

1 cup triple sec

1 cup lemon juice


1/2 cup grenadine

Mix the ingredients in a large punch bowl or pitcher. Pour into tall glasses with ice. Garnish with an orange slice, pineapple wedge, or maraschino cherry.

The two punches, along with 2 fifths of gin for the rickeys and a 24-pack of PBR, turned out to be just the right amount for the evening.

To serve the drinks, I rearranged my furniture to create a bar area in my kitchen. My conveniently bar-height table became the serving area, and a backwards bookshelf became a great place to stash the glasses (mostly mason jars, since nothing at a speakeasy can be served in a glass obviously intended for cocktails). A shelf behind the bar held all of the empty bottles I had been saving, which were relabeled for the party with the vintage labels that came with the Night of Mystery party PDF.

The Bar

My friend and co-party planner Kat managed to track down a free PBR banner, which both completed the bar look (even if it was totally inappropriate for a discreet speakeasy) and hid the microwave and cupboards.

However, there was more to the party than just drinks.

THE FOOD
Appetizers

Since the mystery was set in a speakeasy, I opted not to run it as a multi-course sit-down meal. Instead, I settled on a spread of era-appropriate appetizers. Fortunately for me, the popular food of the day tended to be newfangled processed things like canned fruit, Rice Krispies, and – of course – Jell-O, so it was very possible to put together an impressive yet relatively inexpensive spread.

The centerpiece(s) were two Jell-O molds. Since many original Jell-O mold recipes from the 20’s sounded frankly disgusting (shrimp and mayonnaise in lemon Jell-O?!), I opted for some slightly later recipes. The fantastically titled “Under the Sea Salad” recipe pictured below is from the 1950’s, and the Peaches & Cream recipe from The Kitchn that I used was more modern yet. Unfortunately, not having the skills of The Jell-O Mold Mistress of Brooklyn, my creations ended up being a little lot less decorative than I had hoped. They still tasted good though!

under-the-sea-salad

Also on the menu were:

  • Deviled eggs
  • Rice Krispie treats
  • Pigs in a blanket (for all the non-vegetarians in the room)
  • Potato chips
  • A bowl of mixed nuts

Finishing off the food was the too-weird-to-leave-off-the-list Candle Salad. Originally designed as a way to trick children into eating their fruits and vegetables, this salad is hands-down the most phallic thing I have ever seen.

Despite what you may think when you first behold it, the banana is CLEARLY a candle, and the mayonnaise/whipped cream is CLEARLY the wax being melted by the maraschino cherry flame.

Get your mind our of the gutter.

THE SCENE
In addition to shoving the majority of my furniture in the bedroom or rearranging it to create the bar, I set the scene by hanging the walls with era-appropriate Art Deco posters (there are a bazillion options available on Amazon, and the cheapest one I ordered was retailing at just $0.01 – $2.99 including shipping).

I supplemented these art prints with a variety of print-outs. I covered the bathroom mirror with a variety of vintage advertisements and magazine covers (and – for good measure – replaced my foaming hand soap dispenser with a simple unscented bar soap).

The finishing touch was the wanted posters for the gangsters who would be attending the party. I took the templates provided by Night of Mystery and then photoshopped in photos of the friends of mine who would be playing those characters at the party. Here are the results:

Wanted Posters

So there you go. Food + drinks + a scene well set = the recipe for a very good night.

The final details were the series of emails, all with a typewriter font and smattering of 20’s slang, sent out with character information, the entry plan for the night of the party (enter through the alley after giving the password – the unfortunately obsolete phrase, Phonus Balonus) to the bouncer and climb up the back staircase to the apartment-turned-Juice Joint, and the prizes.

Best Performance PrizeThe awards for Best Dressed and Best Performance were small bottles of house-infused gin (you can find the utterly delicious recipe here), and the super sleuths who correctly solved the murder received little bags of bite-size 20’s candy. The mix included Mounds, Milky Ways, Butterfingers, and Baby Ruths. Unfortunately no Reese’s, because those didn’t come onto the scene until 1928 and I chose to set my party in 1923 (did I mention I’m a stickler for detail?).

I’ll leave you now with a little preview of what the next post will entail, since I forgot to photograph the little bottles of gin before giving them away. To the left a shot of our Mugsy Malone – a North Side Gang Henchman – enjoying his prize for Best Performance.

Doesn’t the little bottle look like something straight out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

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