In order to understand where murder mystery games come from, we need to start at the very beginning and look at where murder mystery fiction came from. As the genre has not been around as long as you think.
While the first murder, and murder enquiry was itself recorded in the bible (Cain vs Abel), the murder mystery as a fiction genre simply didn’t exist until the 1800s.
The first fictional detective was a man created by Edgar Allen Poe. A detective by the name of “August Dupin” who appeared in “Murder in the Rue Morgue” which was published in 1841. (Strangely enough it wasn’t until 1842 that the London metropolitan police appointed their first detective force consisting of just 8 men. So this was almost a work of “science-fiction”!)
Charles Dickens was the next writer to bring out a detective work when he wrote Bleak House in 1853, but even though Charles Dickens had written what could be argued was crime fiction – Crime still hadn’t become a unique genre of it’s own.
In fact it was 1860 before crime really became a hot topic for writers and this was all because of a real murder case which happened that year.
The murder at Road Hill House was the first murder to be extensively reported in the press and it was this case that turned everyone into crime hungry amateur sleuths. You can read all about the murder enquiry in the book “The suspicions of Mr Whicher” by Kate Summerscale.
It was a disturbing case, even in this day and age, but back then the grisly murder of a 3 year old boy unnerved the British public and piqued a morbid curiosity; they wanted to know everything. If a murder like this could happen in what was thought of as a ‘respectable home’ then what could go on elsewhere? The newspapers responded to the public’s interest by telling them as much as they wanted, printing hearsay and rumours as well as facts (there’s not much difference today some would say!)
And so it was this case and the detective fever that followed it, that sparked off the whole genre. The Road Hill case became the blueprint for all murder mystery novels to come. A manor house, a grisly murder, a seemingly respectable family, dark secrets, and a tenacious detective who leaves no stone unturned.
Wickie Collins published Moonstone in 1868, just 8 years after the Road Hill murder and critics claim this book as the first in the new murder mystery genre.
Just a few years later in 1887 one of the world’s best known detectives, Sherlock Holmes arrived. So that’s the start of murder mystery fiction… but how about the games?
Well, the Victorians were lovers of all types of parlour games, many of which have survived until this day in some form or another.
And the best guess is that murder mystery games originated sometime after the Road Hill case, starting out in the form of after dinner games such as murder in the dark, wink murder and jury. These simple parlour games were the precursor to the modern boxed sets, but there was still a few decades of evolution needed before they became what we see today.
Come the 1920’s crime fiction was steadily growing in popularity, and it as now that the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers arrived on the scene creating what is commonly referred to as “The golden age of fiction”. Agatha Christie is best known for just two of her fictional sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple who are the detectives in approximately two thirds of her novels and short stories (however fans will know she created many more detectives including Tommy and Tuppence who recently had a show of their own on the BBC).
Since then murder mysteries have steadily become still more popular and have swamped television programming as well as multiple shelves in bookshops and libraries with crime stories for children as well as adults.
So what about murder mystery games?
Well, 1935 saw the release of the first murder mystery game known as Jury Box. It’s vastly different from the type of games we play today. Rather than everyone role playing a suspect, in Jury Box the players take the role of jurors and are given the scenario of the murder, the evidence presented by the prosecutor and defendant, two photographs of the crime scene and ballot papers. Players then have to make the decision as to who is guilty before the real solution is read out.
Cluedo, the first murder mystery board game was released some time later in 1948, and has continued to be popular. However, Cluedo (or Clue) is again, a vastly different game to the modern role playing dinner party mysteries.
So when did the dinner party games first start?
Well the earliest mention I have found of these role playing murder mystery games in their present format is in the 1980s when they were thought to be a bit of a one year wonder in the game shops. Back then the scenarios were simple. The acting directions minimal (a bi-folded page with a few words on it) and the games relied heavily on the guests being comfortable ad-libbing responses to each other’s questions.
Despite the simplicity of the games, this first evolution of the genre didn’t fall entirely flat, and rather than the product being binned at the end of the season as novelty toys for one year often are, the games began to evolve and grow.
New writers have increased the complexity, improved the playability and publishers have improved the look of the games with graphic design and bespoke boxes so that they continue to fit happily alongside the board games on retail shelving in toy superstores.
When the internet launched in 1991 – murder mystery games were already available on the shelves and it didn’t take long for someone to realise that these simple printed sheets could also be printed at home. Although we don’t have an exact date for the launch of on-line providers – we think the first company must have sprung up in the early 2000s, which means Red Herring Games (which was founded in 2007) was one of the first companies to start providing downloadable murder mystery games (although we know it wasn’t the first!)
These days, with customers seeking better quality print and feel, murder mysteries have gone full circle, with many digital companies producing both boxed sets and downloadable varieties. However Red Herring Games still remain the only murder mystery firm which provides a full 360 service, supplying games and scripts that can be printed at home, as well as boxed kits, event management services and full bespoke writing.