"Help! There's been a murder," screamed Aunt Trotsky, bursting into the soiree.
The crowd, in bowlers and boas, tuxedoes and veils, abandoned the champagne and cheese puffs and rushed to the scene. The body lay sprawled face up on the back patio. The victim clenched a bloodied kitchen knife in his left hand. A crimson patch stained his striped T-shirt.
"Stand back," said a thin, baldish man in corduroy who claimed to be a police inspector. "This is the scene of a crime, and you are all suspects."
So began the mystery dinner one recent Sunday at a Sherman Oaks bookstore aptly named "Scene of the Crime."
In attendance were an electrical engineer from Los Angeles, a coffee-bean roaster from Reseda, a property manager from West Los Angeles and a writer from Studio City, each of whom had paid $55 for the privilege of being interrogated about the incident.
A Change of Roles
But at this dinner--set in London on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Poland--they were an arms dealer, a World War I flying ace and amateur sleuth, a Russian duke, and a Bumpsey--of the Baltimore Bumpseys, naturally, darling.
The group, according to the scenario, had gathered for a gala before embarking on the transcontinental Orient Express as part of the "Society for the Preservation of Sensationally Excruciating Excitement."
Murder Mystery Weekend produced the event for the bookstore. The Burbank firm maintains it has killed off 256 people and has never once been arrested.
The Scene of the Crime, which specializes in mystery and detective fiction, is crammed with books, videocassettes and odds and ends like plastic vampire bats, nooses, dismembered skeletons and desk-top Maltese falcons.
It opens into an English-style tearoom, the site of writing classes, book signings and lectures on topics ranging from police crime-solving procedures to the astrological indicators of women who kill.
The scenario for each mystery dinner is conceived by bookstore owner Ruth Windfeldt, whose husband, Al, serves a meal based on the theme. Guests assume characters appropriate to the designated time and place, and they are responsible during the course of the evening for their character's words and action.
Murder Mystery Weekend President Keith O'Leary writes a script and hires professional actors who are paid about $150 to give a framework to the night of intrigue. The company, which has been in business for two years, usually runs weekend murder mystery events--sometimes on a private train between Los Angeles and San Diego--for individual or corporate mystery buffs.
Police Inspector Lt. Klenhard of the Los Angeles Police Department, played by actor Walter Klenhard of Santa Monica, ushered the guests into the dining room. The decor set the evening's tone: Dracula-shaped candelabras, place cards that looked like tombstones, wallpaper splattered with a red cabbage rose pattern.
Hot on a trail through England of the "Teatime Serial Killer," Lt. Klenhard gathered his clues. Among them were a map of Europe stamped with a swastika, a coat button found in the dead man's right hand and encoded notes.
"I want the money and the information, or I'll kill you," Klenhard read aloud from a tattered yellow scrap. "I can't do anything while the police are here."
Scott (Scoop) Osborne, who said he was from a paper called the New York Graphic, was unimpressed by Klenhard's spiel. Dressed in trench coat and fedora, Osborne, who is actually a reporter for television's "Entertainment Tonight," questioned whether the lieutenant even had any authority in Scotland Yard's territory.
Wrong, Scoop. The English police, it seemed, were cooperating with the California homicide cop.
During the meal, Lt. Klenhard was called often to the telephone, interrupting his interrogations and allowing the participants time to eat. He returned to the guests during the soup course with the coroner's report.
Scotland Yard also provided positive identification of the victim--one Jason Warren, 28, an American, single, in debt, who was a civilian clerk for the Royal Air Force in London. At that point, The Great Baroni, a goateed gentleman in black, was enlisted to help solve the crime. Baroni put the clues to his forehead. They were vibrating, he said.
But Baroni, who in everyday life is North Hollywood psychic and magician Jules Lenier, had little to offer besides red herrings.
After a dinner of spinach salad and Hungarian goulash, a spot of sherry was served. Alas, it hit Ivan Russman, a liquor importer from New York, a bit hard. He took a sip, gagged and fell over--dead.
"Burnt almonds," sniffed Inspector Klenhard, "potassium cyanide." Mrs. Russman gasped.
So did the crowd when actress Sandy Williams, playing Aunt Trotsky--a.k.a. Aurora Trew, a famous English mystery writer in sensible shoes--clomped into the room with more bad news: Germany had just invaded Poland.