Murder, Mystery, and dinner!

Well, we had the murder mystery party. Being the kind of masochist that I am, I decided that I could write one of these things in under a week – no problem. Ha!

It’s a good thing Jan is as understanding as she is – or we’d never have pulled it off. As it was her understanding only went so far and she yanked me up short the day of hte party after I had vanished to write for three hours and pointed out that we had to clean the house and cook.

Somehow we got it all done.

20 guests plus the four of us. We even managed parts for the kids.

I was most impressed that EVERYBODY dressed up and played their part. It was set in 1939 and we had hats and ruffles and dresses and suits and dinner jackets and tranchcoats and so on.

Dinner was more basic than it might have been – it is hard to produce dinner for 24 as the butler without the full cast of understairs help. We had drinks (gin and tonic, whiskey and soda, sparkling apple juice) and olives and nuts. Then more drinks with cheese straws and baked brie en croute as an appetizer. The main course was five (!) roast chickens with three pans of baked potatoes, one pan of baked butternut squash and onions, beets and yams cooked on the stovetop. I ended up cooking the chickens for two and a half hours because even our enormous two-oven range couldn’t cope. They were washed with orange juice, stuffed with orange halves and coated with salt, pepper and mixed herbs. After tha mina course came a salad course followed by dessert (blackberry trifle with sherry for adults and with spiced apple cider for kids). We also made mulled red wine and mulled cider to drink. Finally a cheese course.

I doubt I’ll do it again – it was too much work. But it was a lot of fun.

Here’s the background that all the guests got before they arrived. They also got an individual character sheet with details about their charcater and objectives and motivations.

Death at Welfleet

It is 1938. Europe is on the brink of cataclysm and all the major European powers are jockeying for knowledge, prestige, power and position. Scientific breakthroughs are closely guarded secrets. Hitler’s rise to power worries the rest of the world, but they don’t yet know what it really means – what he is really capable of.

Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are abandoning themselves to reckless gaiety. Parties abound as people desperately seek the last few hours of enjoyment and entertainment before the long nightfall of war descends.

It is to one of these parties – at the large manor in Welfleet, Suffolk in South Eastern England – that we now travel. Sir Richard Ponsonby and his wife, Lady Ellen Ponsonby are throwing a special dinner party to celebrate Christmas 1938, to look back on the past year and to avoid looking forward at the year to come.

Sir Richard and Lady Ponsonby are ably aided in putting on the party by their enigmatic and rather Jeeves-like butler Simpson. Attending the dinner party are two scientists from the nearby Huffa’s Ridge British Military Research Station, Dr Ivor Black and Dr Natalie deGuillemot. They are known to be world experts in radio wave propogation studies. Also in attendance are an attache to the French Embassy in London, Anne-Marie Galtier, and a sub-consul from the Netherlands, Rikard Hullet. They both got to know Lady Ponsonby during some theatrical productions she was involved in while the Ponsonbys were staying at their Sloane Square residence in London. Anne-Marie has brought along a young ballerina from the Royal Dutch Ballet, Fleur Montparnasse. Finally, the maid is Sarah Adler, newly-hired after the mysterious disappearance of the previous maid, and fortunately able to start work just the past week.

Just that afternoon two young German men staggered to the door of the manor, drenched in sea water and blue with cold. They said that they were Helmut Dreisler and Oscar Nagle, two young businessmen and the only survivors of a small boat they had chartered from Oostend to Harwich. They asked for food and a bed for the night and promised to be gone the next day on to London. The local police constable, George Briggs, had been summoned, had taken their particulars, examined their passports, and was to see that they were escorted to the Foreign Office in London the next morning to make sure that their papers were in order. In the meantime, Sir Richard and Lady Ellen gladly added them to the party. George Briggs will stay over and eat in the kitchen just to make sure an eye is kept on them.

The Ponsonby’s nearest neighbours, Arnold and Beatrice Mallon were also invited and, as it was the holidays, they would be joined by their two daughters, Neave and Alice. Neave is a student at nearby Cambridge and very interested in Physics. Alice, quite the opposite, is an actress who wants to be in movies and who has recently done some work with avant-garde filmmakers in Berlin. Betty Johnson is visiting from America with Teddy Trenton (see later). She is a jazz singer, rather eccentric and loud but no dummy at all.

Young Martha Simpson is Simpson’s niece [Mike Simpson, nephew, if a boy] is staying with Simpson for the holidays. Nobody except Simpson is quite sure how or why she is there and nobody dares ask. For all Simpson’s formality and politeness, there is something rather formidable about him. Edward Tatburn is the local Anglican minister at St Stephen’s. He is happy to attend any gathering where he is fed and there is port to be drunk. Arthur Merrick is a taciturn scientist from the military research station who attached himself to the other two and came along anyway. He seems a little too bureaucratic and watchful to really be a scientist. Sir Ponsonby’s second cousin, Agatha Calderon, an eccentric widow who is always following the latest fads, has shown up uninvited and seems rather put out that there is a dinner party going on. She brings an even stranger companion, the very arch and over-the-top fashion designer from Vienna, Lottie Spiegel. An American man, Teddy Trenton, who says he is in finance struck up an acquaintance with Sir Richard in London last week when he was down in town and somehow extracted an invitation for the Christmas Eve Party.

Just before dinner, a quiet Scandinavian woman with a strong accent, Bridgit Eklund, shows up and says she was invited by Rikard Hullet but she seems to draw unusual enmity from Anne-Marie. The Ponsonby’s also have a young cousin, whose parents have had to go to South Africa for two weeks, staying with them. Mary O’Hara (or Darren if a boy) is still in school and rather glad to have the young Simpson around. Finally, at the last minute a gate-crasher shows up – Clarissa Compton – who claims she just HAD to meet Betty Johnson and Fleur Montparnasse and this was the ONLY way.

The Place: Ponsonby Manor, Welfleet, Suffolk

Welfleet gets its name from the sixteenth century smugglers that operated from the three coves that are just sheltered by low hills and cliffs from the regular howling gales that speed across the North Sea from Holland and Denmark. Gin from Holland, spirits, gold, luxuries from Russia via Denmark. The locals did very ‘wel’ indeed out of their small fleet of ‘fishing’ boats.

The main part of the village is only half a mile from shore and most of the small local houses are built between the village square and the sea. The square itself has a small inn, the parish church, St Stephen’s, a post office, police station and a small store. The manor and the other wealthier homes are all further West, on the side of the village away from the sea and closer to London.

But Welfleet is pretty isolated. Ipswich, the nearest large town is sixty miles away and London is ninety miles.

Just North of the village, about three miles, the last of the small hills in the Southern part of Suffolk fade away and the endless fens and flatlands of most of Suffolk begin. Close to the shore are miles of sand dunes and it is just behind these, in row after row of low concrete blockhouses, that the Huffa’s Ridge Military Research Station is located. The Ridge itself refers to the last line of hills separating the station from Welfleet. It was there that rampaging Saxon raider Huffa was thrown back in 353 AD by a desperate group of local farmers. It is rumored that Huffa is buried with full Saxon regalia and honors somewhere in those low hills.

But our story all happens at the manor of Sir Richard Ponsonby, the last of the Ponsonbys. He and his wife, Lady Ellen, have no children. The manor was built in 1711, probably mostly from the proceeds of the smuggling trade. It is a large, two-winged, three story brick manor house with fifteen bedrooms, a large sweeping gravel driveway, innumerable hedges, and all the accoutrements of an English Country Home in the 1930s. It is set on 300 acres of rich Suffolk farmland that is dotted with coppices and little woodlands.

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