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The Reluctant Novice

MURDER MYSTERY : Clued Inn : The Dial 'M' theater group puts on an overnight show whose action continues into the dead of night.


You still haven't figured out who shot J. R. You get confused watching soap opera commercials. When your alarm clock goes off in the morning you wonder how it knew what time to ring. The real world is vast and mysterious and you're glad the piece of it you inhabit is tiny and predictable.

It is, at least, until that fateful night when you go to the Radisson Hotel in Simi Valley for the Dial "M" Murder Mystery performance.

Dial "M" is a theater group that travels from town to town, performing interactive murder mysteries. The mystery will begin Friday evening with a cocktail party and dinner, and end early Saturday afternoon at brunch.

You leave work in the afternoon and take the Simi Valley Freeway to the hotel. This is a road you've traveled many times before, but this time you get lost. You root around the floor for a well-worn map while scanning the titles in your memory bank for the Raymond Chandler book that describes Philip Marlowe getting lost en route to the murder scene. Nothing surfaces. You backtrack and arrive at the destination with time to spare.

Upon arriving, you meet up with a friend, check into your room, then head to the cocktail party near the pool. Mandatory mingling. You are pretty good at polite party banter, when the party consists of four people or less, all of whom are friends or relatives. In this case, there are about 70 people, all strangers. Most are guests, but some are conspicuously overdressed actors trying to blend in as guests.

You survey the room, decide that the butler did it and think about heading home. Unfortunately, a crime hasn't yet been committed and you can't find a butler to pin one on.

"Miss Peggy" (Dial "M" producer, director and mistress of ceremonies Peggy Phillips) instructs all the guests to get to know one another, to interrogate each other. At least one person there, she says, will be the murderer (who you know you're not) and at least one other person will be the murder victim (who you hope you're not). Your job is to find someone with a motive and solve the eventual crime or crimes.

When you and your friend sit down, Garry and Kathy are your table mates. They've been to a Dial "M" mystery before and think they recognize an actor or two. That simplifies things. You settle down, figuring that the suspects will eventually come to you. Your friend has other ideas. She jumps up and starts questioning people around the room and you feel obliged to follow.

In the process of getting to know everyone, you come across an insurance agent, a hospital quality control person, another insurance agent and a doctor of infectious diseases. Or so they say. And, of course, there are all those trendy West L.A. types trying to look as if they fit in Simi Valley. This mystery stuff, you think, isn't so tough after all.

From poolside, it's on to the banquet room for the three-course meal and "decadent dessert." It's no mystery to anyone who knows you that the real reason you are here is for the decadent dessert. There are about eight round tables, each with eight assigned seats. As it happens, you and your friend are seated next to the female lead and one of the male leads, still trying to blend in as average guests.

You eat your salad while listening for clues from the actors' conversation. It's nice to eavesdrop and for once not feel guilty about it. Only problem is, you can't make any sense out of anything you overhear--and they're practically dropping the clues in your lap. Suddenly a guy at a table across the room stands up, clutches his throat, and falls onto a dining cart. Someone yells for the Heimlich maneuver, but no one moves. He's either choking on his radicchio or he's been poisoned. It's the latter, thank goodness.

After that scene, however, you eat a bit more slowly, chewing carefully. This wouldn't be the best night to choke on your food--everyone would watch you die while taking notes.

Soon Lt. Columbus, a takeoff on Columbo, bursts onto the scene and the mystery is in full swing. He gathers clues from the body of the dead guy as the guests busily jot them down. These hints mean absolutely nothing to you, so you have another bite of dinner roll. The lieutenant soon leaves the room and you excuse yourself too, heading off to the restroom. There, scrawled in red lipstick on the mirror, is a short poem involving love and death. It strikes you as odd, but not odd enough to consider a clue--maybe a wedding reception gone bad from the day before.

At the end of the dinner, you are warned: Be alert for an important clue during the course of the evening. You look for it in the dining room, in the Radisson nightclub, in the hotel hallways, in the lobby, in the hot tub. At times you think you have found it, but you're not sure. When Lt. Columbus comes knocking at your door at 12:30 in the morning, you have no clue that that's the clue. You close the door on him and go to sleep.

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