Crime Fiction, the Murder Mystery Party and the Uncanny Valley

A guest post by
The murder mystery novel has a long and venerable history. But it looks like, given half a chance, we humans enjoy taking things a lot further than mere reading. These days books are just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to indulge your passion for crime to the full, how about a murder mystery party?

The rise and rise of the murder mystery

The earliest crime novel is thought to be The Rector of Veilbye by a Danish author, Steen Steensen Blicher, first published way back in 1829. Edgar Allan Poe followed suit from the early 1840s, with books like 1841’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue proving popular with the reading public, such as it was at the time. But it was the arrival of mass media print in the UK and USA, during the mid-1800s, that brought crime mystery books to the fore. As cheap print became available to ordinary people for the first time, crime fiction fast became a part of everyday life. And the rest is history.

Mission creep – Crime thrillers migrate to radio, TV and the silver screen

Since the birth of the silver screen crime thriller books have been made into movies, letting viewers lose themselves in an idealistic world where the goodies are always rewarded and the baddies suffer the consequences of their nasty actions. Crime fiction and other scary stuff works remarkably well on film and it even translates beautifully onto radio – witness BBC Radio 4’s version of The Exorcist, due to be aired soon and keenly anticipated by radio-loving Brits. Take a script, add your average human being’s remarkable imagination and simply hearing something scary becomes just as disturbing as reading or watching it.

Crime mysteries go digital

The work of crime mystery authors also translates into video games, breathing new life into the written word through virtual reality. Take Rockstar Games’ L.A. Noire, for example, where the player takes on the role of LAPD Detective Cole Phelps to solve murders and other heinous crimes using real-life investigative and interrogative techniques.
Better Call Saul
Then there’s telly. Switch on the goggle box any evening of the week and you’ll find entire TV channels dedicated to murder documentaries, series and movies, quite apart from the large percentage of crime fiction found on regular channels. I defy you to find one that doesn’t have at least one crime series either on the go or on the cards. The genre has become so widespread that every dumb thriller fan on the planet knows enough about forensic detection techniques to run a halfway-decent crime scene analysis all on their own.

Introducing the murder mystery party phenomenon

Murder mystery books are very popular. Get busy with Google’s key term identification tool and you find there are around 170 Google searches for them every month. But expand things a little and see what you get for the search term ‘murder mystery party’. The results are astonishing, an eye-popping 5400 searches a month.

Punt the term ‘murder mystery games’ in and you get around 3600 searches per month, meaning a whole load of people are on a mission to either find out about, buy or play murder games. Compared to the term ‘murder mystery films’ at 260 searches a month and ‘suspense thriller movies’ at 140, it’s pretty damn dramatic.

Crime mystery authors, TV and film producers have nothing to worry about. People are still reading and watching tales of murder and mayhem in their droves – the trend shows no sign of slowing. If you’re a game creator, the genre must represent an equally massive opportunity. And these days the same probably goes for event organisers, party planners and even stately home owners, some of whom hold murder mystery weekends to raise funds for historic building’s upkeep.

Murder-led meals, hen nights, fundraisers and corporate entertainment

A simple Google search delivers a host of information about the murder games phenomenon. Take the Murder Mystery Meals Company, who have been “have been killing people for over 17 years”, with a nationwide network of 800 actors offering events anywhere in the UK. They cater for groups of anything between seven and two hundred people. You can hold an event at your house, a pub, a rented holiday cottage or an hotel and the company has plenty of 3 and 5 star hotels to choose from, who they obviously have cordial working partnerships with. They even offer Hen Night murder mysteries – The Jealous Bride is one of their most popular plots. All of which goes to show that rash, random and brutal killings can present a seriously lucrative business opportunity!

Other companies provide downloadable kits so you can create your own role play with home-made props and costumes. You can download free games, choosing them by theme or season, and even indulge in murder-less mysteries, perfect for those who are a little too sensitive or over-imaginative to risk your peace of mind.

Exploring the Uncanny Valley

What’s next? It’s hard to imagine anything more effective than actually playing out a murder and its consequences in real life through role play. But what about the long-awaited and not-quite-yet-realised potential of virtual reality?

Once hyper-realistic 3D simulations go mainstream – which they eventually will – murder mystery games will take on a whole new, potentially very weird dimension. Make VR look realistic enough and you risk ending up in the Uncanny Valley, a highly unpleasant emotional space where what you see becomes either a bit too real for comfort… or not quite real enough. It’s a balancing act:

“The uncanny valley represents the point at which a person observing the creature or object in question sees something that is nearly human, but just enough off-kilter to seem eerie or disquieting. The first peak, moreover, is where that same individual would see something that is human enough to arouse some empathy, yet at the same time is clearly enough not human to avoid the sense of wrongness. The slope leading up to this first peak is a province of relative emotional detachment.”

If murder games become too real for comfort, will humanity’s fascination with the subject finally plateau? What do you think?