Murder Mystery Weekend in Searsport

Robin and I had a fantastic time at the Captain Nickels Inn (Searsport, ME) November 1&2! Our thanks to Dawn and Cassidy Gintz for taking a chance on two writers who have experience with amateur theater but had never put together a murder mystery weekend before. Everyone had fun and the only casualty was a fictional character who nobody liked, anyway. We’d also like to give a “shout out” to Dick Cass for recommending us to Dawn and Cassie.

They have been restoring the bed & breakfast to its former glory and the Inn provided a great backdrop for our murder mystery, “One Mystery Author Too Many”. Cassie worked magic in the kitchen and prepared breakfasts that were To Die For (appropriate for the event). Tina Delsanto (from local favorite restaurant, Delvino’s) was on hand to make sure every detail of both, gourmet dinners was perfect. MacKenzie, from Cellar Door Vineyards (Lincolnville, ME) did an excellent job in selecting wine pairings for each of the seven, tapas courses served on Friday night.

Robin and I introduced our mystery after dessert on Friday evening, and the first floor of the Inn was packed with guests on Saturday morning as they worked to find clues, unravel riddles and solve puzzles —created especially for the Captain Nickels Inn by RLawtonSquared. Their goal was to find enough information to unmask which of the characters was the murderer who put Royal Pane out of everyone’s misery.

Guests were encouraged to dress as their favorite detective for dinner in the ballroom, on Saturday night. Robin and I were Nora and Nick Charles (The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett), dressed in high fashion and accompanied by our stuffed and therefore well-behaved dog, Asta. Dinner was followed by a short play in which guests accepted roles—many of them delivering performances worthy of a Tony. The identity of the killer was revealed as part of the play and prizes were distributed. Although we cannot divulge whodunit, it was the guest dressed as Hamish Macbeth (protagonist from books authored by M.C. Beaton) who finally cracked the case.

A plethora of photographs with the all the usual suspects can be found on our Facebook page at Rob Lawton.

Murder by the Book

For each of the last several years, the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor (Maine) hosts an event called Murder by the Book.  In October, a dozen or so Maine mystery writers are invited to come and read an excerpt from a yet to be published work.  This year, Robin and I volunteered to create a mystery that would give everyone in town a chance to participate.  So, we wrote One Mystery Author Too Many in which reclusive billionaire and avid mystery fan, I. Reed Toomuch, invites 14 mystery writers to come to his private island for a weekend of fun.  The fun stops when one of the guests, Royal Pane, is murdered.  Local townsfolk were given a brief introduction to the mystery, along with a cast of possible suspects, and a set of hints to find clues at each of 22 shops that would hopefully enable them to correctly identify whodunit and collect a prize at the big reveal, on October 26th.  Local actors performed the final act at the library, with some of the invited authors volunteering to play the role of their own avatar in the mystery.

Attendance was great and only one participant was able to correctly identify the murderer (although I later learned his wife picked an alternate suspect just in case her husband turned out to be barking up the wrong tree).

Invited authors included:  David Rosenfelt (I loved Open and Shut), Brenda Buchanan, Nicole Seavey (give Minor Indiscretions a try), James Hayman, Richard Cass (I’m just now finishing In Solo Time), Bruce Coffin (liked Among the Shadows enough to buy the next two in the Byron series), Lynne Raimondo (enjoyed reading Dante’s Wood), Julia Spencer-Fleming, Vaughn Hardacker), James Ziskin, Jane Sloven, Stephanie Gayle), and Dorothy Cannell (I recommend Murder at Mullings).

Our special thanks to the actors who volunteered to perform many of the roles in the script: Angel Hochman, Mike Rogers, Laura Levin and Mia Jeannotte, as well as the authors who read the lines for their alternate personas in the mystery:  Dick Cass, Jane Sloven, Brenda Buchanan and Stephanie Gayle.  We’d also like to thank the other Mystery Mavens who helped to make this event a success:  Nancy Jones, Cas Dowden, Nancy Poteet, Alice Long and Ruth Westphal, as well as the staff for the Jesup, including but not limited to Kayla Chagnon and, of course – the ringleader for the whole affair, Melinda Rice-Schoon, Program Director at the library.

We’ve attached a copy of murder mystery to our website, under Free Stuff.  Feel free to read the short intro and then open the clues package, but don’t look at the Final Act until you think you’ve solved the mystery.  Let us know if you figured it out!

Reflections about Rex Stout

Our first conference as mystery writers was Bouchercon 2017, in Toronto.  Imagine a hotel filled with nearly two thousand people with no thought on their mind except murder.  It was a wonder my wife and I could sleep.  I made her take the side of the bed closest to the door.

It was at this conference where we also attended our first dinner with the Wolfe Pack—a society dedicated to the memory of Nero Wolfe, the famous detective created by Rex Stout.  During that dinner, we literally had to sing for our supper and our table was coerced into creating a Christmas carol based on Rex Stout’s creation.  Not having read a single one of his mysteries before then, it was a challenging task.  When we got back to our island off the coast of Maine, I decided to acquaint myself with Mr. Wolfe to better prepare myself for future dinner parties.

Before I begin, I’d like to recognize the Wolfe Pack as an excellent source of information on this subject.  Rex Stout was a mathematics prodigy.  Along with his brother, Robert, he invented a banking system used by more than 400 schools across the nation to promote thrift among school age children.   Royalties from this venture made it possible for him to retire from the business world and focus on writing full time.  Stout won the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1959.  He is best known for the Nero Wolfe series of books, although the first was not published until Stout was nearly 50 years old.  Between then and his death at the age of 88, he wrote more than seventy mysteries featuring the brilliant, corpulent detective.  Wolfe was known for his ability to solve complicated murders from his desk, while drinking copious quantities of beer.

The legwork was done by his assistant, Archie Goodwin, as the famous detective rarely left his apartment in Manhattan.  According to Archie’s Corner (Wolfe Pack website), Dame Agatha Christie was a huge fan of Rex Stout.  When she went to the bookstore hunting for the latest Archie Goodwin novel, the clerk tried to correct her and explain it was known as the Nero Wolfe series.  Christie responded by saying, “Nonsense!  Everybody knows that Archie does all the work.”

My first introduction was The League of Frightened Men, in which Wolfe is quoted as saying, “To assert dignity is to lose it.”  I enjoyed it enough that while doing research on American practices and language during WWII, I also read Not Quite Dead Enough, where Archie explains the best way to work with his boss.  “They’ve handled him wrong…he wouldn’t call on the King of China, even if there was one.  The only thing he’s got is brains, and the only way to go is to take things to him: facts, problems, people…”

The following quote from Ross McDonald perhaps best summarizes the work of Rex Stout, “With great wit and cunning, he devised a form which combined the traditional virtues of Sherlock Holmes and the English school with the fast-moving vernacular narrative of Dashiell Hammett.” [1]

Stout provides Archie as the foil for Wolfe, much the same way Doyle teams Watson with Holmes.  The key difference is that while his employer may be the genius, it’s Archie who steals the show, with lines like the following from Not Quite Dead Enough, “I looked at my watch and it was 10:40.  An hour later I looked again and it was 10:55.”  In spite of the fact Archie prefers to drink milk, he emerges as the character we’d most like to have a beer with, not Wolfe.   The sentiment is probably best summarized by Archie himself, in the same story, “He was gazing at Wolfe with a certain expression…It reminded me of what so many out-of-town folks say about New York: that they love to visit the place, but you couldn’t pay them to live there.”

Interestingly, although the brownstone occupied by Wolfe and his assistant occasionally change addresses from one story to the next (although it never quite manages to leave New York), the characters themselves remain immutable.  “Those stories have ignored time for thirty-nine years,” Stout told his authorized biographer John McAleer. “Any reader who can’t or won’t do the same should skip them. I didn’t age the characters because I didn’t want to. That would have made it cumbersome and would seem to have centered attention on the characters rather than the stories.” [2]

One of the most commonly quoted pieces of advice for aspiring writers is to write.  Less common but probably just as important—read.  You could do a lot worse than to pick up, or download, a copy of an Archie Goodwin novel (everybody knows he does all the work) 😉.

[1] McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977, p. 242

[2] McAleer, John J. (1983). Royal Decree: Conversations with Rex Stout. Ashton, Maryland: Pontes Press. OCLC 11051942.