Head Space: Local murder-mystery and dinner party extravaganza is a trip

Host and owner of Victorian Country Inn Barbara Spencer: “Here, history is intertwist with mystery.”

Driving down Highway 124 on my way to Victorian Country Inn to participate in an eclipse-themed murder-mystery dinner party, the narrow road and mid-Missouri bumps-called-hills immediately put me in a nostalgic mood.

Missouri, whether fundamentally or undeservedly, can have the reputation of being, well, boring. Even in supposed entertainment hotspots like downtown Columbia, the same handful of bars, restaurants and stores seem to be the most explored.

Hoping to break from the familiar monotony, I expanded my scope.

At first glance, Victorian Country Inn, located in Hallsville, looks like many bed-and-breakfasts. It has a porch with a beautiful view, a rustic guest house and a quaint pond coupled with the sprinkling sounds of a stone fountain.

Inside, though, is a subtly different story. Each room within the Victorian-style home is its own little container of history, whether that be local, international or personal to the owners, Barbara and Ray Spencer.

“Here, history is intertwist with mystery,” Barbara Spencer said while whirling around the numerous knicknacks and antique furnishings around the surprisingly homey living room and parlor.

During Spencer’s nearly hour-long tour, she rarely stopped to catch her breath. Each possession around the inn contained its own entire history that Spencer needed to tell. Some histories were undoubtedly true, like fanciful guns from her husband's family. Though, others were admittedly dubious, like a possibly historic settee or knicknacks graced by Baby Face Nelson’s presence when he passed through Missouri.

The front dining room is combination of classic Victorian era furniture, though just to the left the living room has Western themes mixed in. After passing through the open floor plan, wood paneling covers the rustic kitchen. On the other side of a swinging gate with an “Employees Only” sign, Spencer’s husband starts preparing the gourmet, yet homecooked, meal.

All over the walls and in overstuffed cabinets are group photos of past murder-mystery dinner guests. Impressively, Spencer recalled exciting tidbits of each group, as if they had just passed through her inn.

Apparently, this particular murder-mystery dinner I had wandered into was different from her typical dinners. First, she used a new, rough-around-the-edges script, this one relevantly eclipse-themed. Second, 20 people tend to show up to these dinners, but that night there were only five.

The other four guests were two couples: one around their mid-20s, the second old enough to be grandparents.

After some themed pictures and early into our dinner together, our group tread awkwardly through conversation. Everyone seemed to be desperately trying to find any common points of interest. In hopes of expanding conversations, we all began dipping our toes into the investigation before us by opening up the dense packet of clues Spencer had prepared.

Typical murder-mystery parties assign characters to the guests, who then act out certain events and key lines which work as clues. So as someone attending the party, guests would experience the mystery firsthand.

Tonight’s party was different. Instead, the mystery has unfolded days before — actually the night of the solar eclipse. Based off of real Canadian astronomers who had rented out the inn to see totality, Spencer’s script fictionalized three of their disappearances and charged us to discover what had happened.

While we read about the over a dozen characters in this bizarre mystery, guests would occasionally try to begin suggesting early judgements and predictions. I placed my bets on Bob, the sketchy “bugophobe,” though the 14 paragraphs describing the characters made it hard for anyone else at the table to even begin to sympathize with my suspicions.

Eventually, our salads came out. After a cringeworthy group effort to pass some fancy crackers around the table, it seemed like the our investigative team’s uncomfortable dynamic was set in stone.

But then, miraculously, something cracked.

Conversation lightened up. We started telling jokes, and not light, icebreaker ones. We told weirdly sincere jokes. A man teaching woman a how to use his telescope became something much, much more, and hilarious tales of old ladies buying hemorrhoid cream seemed totally natural.

By the time we had finished dinner and began our guided investigation through Spencer’s estate, we developed inside jokes and pushed each other further into character as detectives and secretaries.

The surreality of walking into a room behind a hidden bookshelf to inspect our suspects’ clues just made sense. Taking an ATV ride through a pitch-black field to discover the remains of a murder surrounded by “alien” glow sticks, despite the naivete, was ominous.

At the end of the night, as we talked over theories with the ever-excited Spencer, it was hard to imagine that we had only known each other a handful of hours. Over the candlelight and clink of wine glasses from the table, I looked into the other room at the wooden antiques covering the walls.

As expected, the night had been weird and endearingly innocent. However, as Spencer revealed the mystery to us, there was a fleeting intimacy. And somehow it all felt strangely American.

Edited by Claire Colby | ccolby@themaneater.com

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