I have recently learned the utility and value of a good murder-board when trying to solve a mystery.
You know what I’m talking about: Those corkboard messes of red yarn and black-and-white portraits you see in procedural cop dramas. I always assumed those things were just a visual conceit to show someone’s descent into obsession as they track a killer.
But it turns out that they’re all but necessary to keep all the relationships, dates, and facts straight to continue connecting the dots as the mystery I’m working on widens from month to month.
I’m learning all this by playing Curtain Call, the latest campaign from Hunt A Killer, a mystery puzzle box subscription service. The complete mystery comes in six boxes, and costs $30 per month if you pay month-to-month, or $25 per month if you sign up for the 12-month, two-mystery package. You can also buy complete, finished seasons for $180, if you want to get the whole shebang without waiting a month between installments.
Each box may include police reports, newspaper clippings, notes written by suspects, financial records, and a physical trinket such as a cuff link or a monogrammed hankie. Curtain Call deals with a very cold case from the 1930s in which a famous stage actor disappeared after an argument during rehearsals, only for her body to be found in the modern day. The owner of the theater reached out to a private eye, your contact, who was too busy to take the case, so it gets sent to you.
The way the game’s design keeps you in this world is one of the most charming aspects of each box. There’s even a virtual desktop for you to log into if you want to see all the evidence as virtual files, instead of the physical papers in the box. This in-universe computer also includes notes on how to crack a series of common codes, many of which are, of course, used in the adventure.
When you figure out the details you need to nail down in each episode, you have to email the answer to your contact at the fictional theater, the one who “hired” you, with a specific subject line and an answer for whatever question was asked in that episode.
I like to have fun with this sort of thing, so I wrote a pretty long email detailing our process, and was delighted when the character wrote an equally long response back. That response was clearly pre-written just to tell me if I was right or wrong, but it still felt like the reality of this fictional world worked in a fun and internally consistent way. These emails, which conclude each episode, also may include their own clues, and point to possible twists in the story.
Getting information to the player in a way that doesn’t break immersion is a challenge with this kind of at-home mystery package, but the designers here excelled. A souvenir notebook from the theater at which the murder took place, for instance, is included in the first box. It functions both as a way to give you a place to write notes, but the first few pages are also filled with facts and information about the theater, including a detailed description of stage direction. I wonder if that will come in handy at any point?
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The structure of a monthly subscription box also serves this sort of mystery well, as there are two levels to each episode: Each box has its own goal, such as figuring out the murder weapon or trying to remove someone as a suspect, but every box also gives you a bigger picture of the crime as a whole. Who were these people? How were they connected, and who might want to kill the show’s star? The combination of figuring out each smaller detail and solving the entire case, as the evidence builds and builds, is intoxicating. Especially as the story begins feinting at people who may not be the murderer or indicating other details may not have been what you assumed.
It helps that the writing is inspired, with newspaper clippings from 1933 (or was it 1934? I need to check my timeline) that read like they’re appropriate for the era.
All of the material, from the detective’s notes on suspect interviews to the playbills themselves, suggests a deep knowledge of the theater, from groan-worthy puns in the show titles to sly nods at how tyrannical stage managers can be. I’m currently on episode three, and I’m playing through with a friend, bouncing theories and suspicions off each other as we struggle to figure out each month’s mystery.
You have to do a lot of reading, note-taking, and data organization to get ahead in your investigations, but the material sent with each episode is well-written enough that it never feels like a chore. The slowest moments are the time spent decoding messages once you’ve broken a cipher, although to my own delight I realized each code was so common there were automated sites online to help decode, say, a Caesar cipher.
Then again, as each box showed me, detective work is a lot of grunt work, as I tried to figure out timelines based on fuzzy interviews, and a motive based on changing relationships and shifting fortunes. This is why that murder board is so important: It’s the place to put all the facts you know so you don’t have to keep going back to the primary documents.
The biggest draw of these mysteries for me, however, is that each episode is all-consuming. It’s next to impossible to think about anything else when I’m reading so many different sources of information while trying to nail down a particular timeline or cross-referencing new facts with things I knew before.
A fictional actor is dead, and I have to get to the bottom of it. Despite the grisly nature of the case, I’m thankful for anything that distracts me so thoroughly from my own life during 2020, and that can still be done from the safety of your home without breaking quarantine. The case also came with a pre-made Spotify playlist, created by a character from the story, obviously, and era-appropriate cocktail recipes, with options for people who don’t drink.
Those little details go a long way to delivering the thrill of not being a real detective exactly, but being able to role-play the Hollywood version of the put-upon private eye. Even with the grisly nature of this fictional murder, getting a chance to take a break from the reality of our own lives is a rare thrill, and this subscription box delivered that experience right to my doorstep.
Curtain Call is out now. The subscription box was reviewed using a the full season of six boxes provided by Hunt A Killer. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.
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