The Sixties Blog
The Who’lldoit Murder Mystery

The title of the dinner theater mystery was changed from “Murder on the Menu” to “Murder Well Done” when the owner of the steakhouse where it would debut complained that the first title might associate his restaurant with food poisoning. The restauranteur also required, among other things, that the mystery resemble classic film noir, this being the genre he thought most complementary to his steakhouse’s ambience.

Producing the murder mystery was the restauranteur’s cousin, Vinny Vannucchi, a newly retired dentist and veteran community theater thespian who now dreamed of becoming the Orson Wells of dinner theater mysteries. Vinny’s troupe consists so far of Chick and Chuck, their last names being Ellis and Anderson or vice versa; Lionel Mason; and, if you count me, me. For some time Vinny, Chick and Chuck have frequented the same health club and afterward refreshed themselves as part of a fraternity called Beer Without Fear. Vinny knows Lionel from community theater, and Lionel knows me from our years working together for the University of California, Davis.

Lionel, who will direct, recruited me to create a website promoting the mystery theater on the Internet. I agreed because I like Lionel and because I have nothing better to do. My only role in the mystery’s’ performance will be to play the corpse of William Kane. I have acted only once in my life, having been cast as Stalin in a sixth grade historical play staged for parents. I stunk. I knew it. And walking off stage, I resolved never to act again.  

At our first gathering to discuss the script, Vinny began by saying that if the debut is a hit, cousin Dino would not only book us for repeat performances, but for performances at his steakhouses in Stockton and South Lake Tahoe. To inspire us further, Vinny drew on words of the late sportscaster Curt Gowdy. “Gentlemen,” he said, “our future is all ahead of us!”

Fortunately, Vinny did not author the script. That wordsmith was Clint Bodine, a published author of historical novels who, according to Vinny, was now 1,800 miles away visiting family in Oklahoma. Vinnie said Clint gave him full license to revise the script which, if true, probably means none of us will ever see, talk to or otherwise communicate with Clint Bodine.

Vinnie now turned the floor over to his director, Lionel, who said: “At the beginning of the script you’ll see a list of nine characters—”

“Ten! I count ten,” Chick interrupted.

“Yes, well . . . Ten if you count William Kane’s corpse,” Lionel said. “Now, following each name is a short description of the character. You as actors will be responsible for inventing your character’s backstory to relate to people in between scenes. However—and I assume you know this, but I’ll say it anyway—it’s absolutely critical that what you say be consistent with your character’s description and all details revealed by the script.”

“How can the corpse do that?” Chick asked.

“He can’t, Chick! He’s dead!” Vinny barked. “Dead 30 seconds into the performance!” He eyed Chick sternly. “One backstory that doesn’t need telling is why you came here by Uber.”

Chick looked back at him with a round face that seemed attached to his temples and sagging in the middle causing his mouth to be fixed in a dopey smile.

Lionel said: “Any other questions or comments about our list of characters?”

“I was wondering about the private eye’s name, Johnny Diamond,” I said.

“I like it!” Vinny snapped defensively. “It’s a lot better than the name Clint first came up with—Bull Balsey!”

“Johnny Diamond doesn’t strike me as much of an improvement,” Chuck said. “It’s too . . . I don’t know . . . cheesy. I would suggest something classier, like the name Philip Marlowe.”

“Already taken by Raymond Chandler,” Lionel said.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the last name,” Chuck countered. “We’ll benefit from the association and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. As long as our detective’s first name isn’t Philip. I was thinking he should have a name that’s more hip. You know, like Drift—Drift Marlowe.”

“Drift Marlowe!” Chick chortled. “Sounds like a pothead.”

Vinny held up his hands palms outward. “Look, I’m playing the detective and I like the name Johnny Diamond,” he said. “Dino likes it too. He even said he likes the idea of a detective’s last name being linked to cards. Like Sam Spade.”

“What’s your problem with the name?” Lionel asked me.

“Me? No problem. I was just going to say Johnny Diamond is the name of a Mississippi riverboat gambler who was murdered in a backstory of the John Wayne movie ‘El Dorado.’ James Caan plays a character avenging Johnny’s death.”

“Only you would know that,” Lionel said dismissively. “Let’s move on. I have a real problem with the name of this international playboy. I mean: Merle Fotts? What international playboy would go by Merle Fotts?”

He looked around. No one disagreed.

“Why not call him Drift Marlowe?” I said.

Lionel scribbled the name on his script without looking up. He did not need to. No one disagreed.

Vinny said: “Now someone is bound to object to our femme fatale being called Miss Kitty. I don’t disagree that should be changed to something more patrician. But I’m thinking her name is best left to the woman who plays her.”

Hearing no objections, Lionel said: “Okay, whatever. Now, speaking of Miss Kitty, let’s turn to the script and what I consider to be its biggest weakness . . . particularly since Miss Kitty is our murderer. Here is a beautiful Manhattan debutante heiress, schooled in Europe, whose leading characteristics are her ability to control men and her passions for ballet and equestrian sport. Two witnesses tell police that they saw her at home fifteen minutes before her father, billionaire William Kane, was poisoned at his birthday dinner in a restaurant across town. Thirty minutes later—15 minutes after Kane dropped dead—the family chauffeur drives Miss Kitty from home to the restaurant, a trip that lasted at least 30 minutes in Manhattan traffic. In sum, for Miss Kitty to cross town, poison the restaurant food served especially to her father, and return home in the space of 30 minutes would seem impossible. Everyone with me so far.”

“How does she explain arriving at the dinner 45 minutes late?” Chick asked.

“Read the script, Chick!” Vinny snapped. “She refuses to eat meat. She told everyone she would postpone her arrival until the presentation of the birthday cake. By the way, Dino liked the vegetarian bit. Only twisted bastards refuse to eat steak, he said.”

“Right, well, moving on . . .” Lionel said. “The solution to the murder is that Miss Kitty disguised herself as a New York mounted policeman, galloped across Central Park on a horse, entered the restaurant’s kitchen claiming that she was in pursuit of a mugger, poisoned a dish she knew was being prepared especially for her father, and then galloped home. Now . . .”

Lionel paused to leaf through his script. 

Chick stood up, pointed to a passageway, pointed to his crotch, hitched up his jeans and headed to the passageway.

“Get me a beer on your way back,” Chuck called after him.

Vinny closed his eyes and shook his head.

Lionel said: “I’m now going to read dialogue in which homicide detective Dan Troop relates Kitty’s alibi to Johnny Diamond.

Troop: Both the butler and a maid swear they looked out the window of the family mansion at 6:00 p.m. and saw Miss Kitty.

Johnny Diamond: Where outside?

Troop:  In the back. Standing just inside the door of the barn.

Johnny Diamond:  What was she doing?

Troop:  Nothing unusual, they said. Just standing there holding a shovel.”

Lionel dropped the script on his lap and said: “Does everyone see how terribly wrong this is?”

Chuck snorted, I chuckled and Vinny threw up his hands and erupted: “I knew it! I gave Bodine two free crowns and a filling to write this script! In advance! Two crowns and a filling!”.

“Easy Vinny, easy,” Lionel said. “I didn’t say this can’t be fixed. In fact, the fix will make for a good solution. We can lose this horse business, the barn and for God sakes the shovel. We can lose Central Park and the need for the city to be New York. Instead, we give Miss Kitty a dare-devil reputation. Make her a woman known to love fast cars, speed boats and motorcycles. She is able to speed to and from the restaurant disguised as a motorcycle cop. On a motorcycle she could zip along between cars and as a cop ignore lights at intersections. Randy is a great writer. Let him work it out.”

I opened my mouth but could not find the words.

“There are other parts that need tweaking, but none detrimental to the plot,” Lionel said. “Such as the opening scene in which Kane’s newest trophy wife confronts him after learning he has filed for divorce. It’s a good scene, Vinny. A real grabber! Not until then does anyone in the restaurant know who the actors are. The wife charges into and through the restaurant to Kane’s table, declares she’s owed more than her prenuptial agreement, points a malevolent finger at Kane as she puts a curse on him, and cackles when he drops over dead. I even like the idea of her throwing her wedding ring. But not throwing it into a spittoon.”

“A spittoon in a steakhouse is weird,” said Chuck. “Chances are we couldn’t find that prop anyway. Jesus Vinny, who is this Clint Bodine anyway?”

“I told you: a published novelist,” Vinny said.

“What’d he write?”

I said: “I have that list, I googled Bodine for information I could include on our website.”  I now looked at my notes and said: “He wrote five novels: The Blazing Guns of Texas, Gunfight in a Texas Town, The Guns of the Texas Rangers, Legend of the Texas Gunslinger and The Fastest Gun in Texas.

“Westerns?” Chuck sneered.

“It’s a genre close to film noir,” Vinny protested. “Both genres were the rage in the late ‘40s and ‘50s.”

Lionel said: “Yes, well, that explains the finale—Miss Kitty gunning down three of our characters before Johnny Diamond shoots her dead. Frankly Vinny, I’m concerned there may be an ordinance that prohibits discharges of firearms in businesses like restaurants, even if you are firing blanks.”

Vinny shrugged and said sheepishly: “The truth is, both Dino and I have concerns about possible liability.”  

Returned with beers for himself and Chuck, Chick enthused, “Maybe you could end it with a cat fight between Miss Kitty and Mrs. Kane! Yeah, baby!”

“More liability,” Vinny muttered.

Lionel said: “We’ll come up with a new ending. Randy will work it out.”

I opened my mouth but could not find the words.

Lionel said: “It occurs to me that advertising Bodine’s name might attract Western fans expecting something they’re not going to get.”

“Mmm . . . Fill the seats with the Cattlemens crowd,” Vinny mused, referring to customers of a restaurant chain that advertises itself as a “family-oriented Western-themed steakhouse.”  Vinny frowned and added: “Dino wouldn’t like that. Those people don’t drink, and Dino makes as much selling wine, beer and martinis as he does sirloin.”

“You know that Clint Bodine is a pen name?” I said.

“What? No!” Vinny said.

Faces brightened.

“Credit his real name then,” Lionel said. “What is it?”.

“Merle Fotts.”

Faces darkened.

Lionel muttered: “Go with C. Bodine. And credit yourself as a scriptwriter as well.”

I opened my mouth but I could not find the words.

Vinny slapped his knee and said, “Now we need to discuss our biggest challenge, which is casting. As it stands, I will play Johnny Diamond, Chuck will be Troop, Lionel will play Big Eddie and Chick—I’m casting you as Drift Marlowe.”

"I thought I was to be the corpse!” Chick protested.

“Randy will play the corpse,” Vinny said. “You need to be Marlowe  because you’re the youngest one here. What are you—50?”

“48.”

“The only one of us young enough to play Drift Marlowe—and even 48 is a stretch,” Vinny said. “The problem is, we have five other roles that we’re all far too old to play. Three characters should be in their late thirties or early forties, Mrs. Kane should be late thirties max, and—I see no way around this—Miss Kitty has to be in her twenties, the younger the better. Now Lionel and I will ask our community theater contacts for recommendations. But we all need to think whether we have a relative or friend of the family who could play one of these parts.“

“Our first priority has to be casting Miss Kitty,” Lionel said. “Yes, she only appears halfway through the performance. But she must be young and attractive. And her role is the most challenging and the most important to the plot.”

“Maybe to attract prospects, we could offer a lion’s share of whatever Dino is paying the Vannucchi Mystery Company,” I suggested.

“Just how much are we getting?” Chick asked.

“$1,000,” Vinny said.

“Does that include the cost of the website?” I asked.

“Dino has a restaurant website you can use. We assumed you would promote us mainly through social media, which doesn’t cost anything.”

I opened my mouth but I could not find the words.

“If necessary, offer her the whole $1,000,” Lionel said. Eying Chick, he said: “Everyone else should be content to perform out of their love for show business.”

Vinny said: “The $1,000 minus expenses, you mean?”

“Whatever,” Lionel said.

Vinny ran a hand over his thick chalk-colored hair, then let it drop limply to his lap.  “This casting of Miss Kitty makes me nervous,” he said. “Suppose I interview some nutcase who goes to #MeToo and claims I propositioned her on the casting couch like Harvey Weinstein?”

“What?” Lionel yelped. “Jesus Vinny, you can only cast on a couch like Harvey Weinstein if your production company can afford a couch! I mean, who would be so dumb as to solicit sex from a woman by promising to make her the headliner at a steakhouse?”

“Well, I estimate there’d also be $400 or so involved after the costs for props, fedora hats, insurance--”

“And free beer at rehearsals?” Chick chirped.

“What do you think, Randy?” Lionel asked me, which seemed to imply I had a standing in this company much higher than the midget I wanted to be.

I replied: “I’d reduce the sexual harassment risk by changing the name of the production company to something like The Blade Hathaway Players.”

No one laughed.

Vinny grumbled: “Dino would love that. Dino’s Steakhouse presents The Blade Hathaway Players.”

“All Randy’s saying is that this is much ado about nothing,” Lionel said. “Tell you what, Vinny, I’ll audition all the women with you. I’ve yet to hear of even a Hollywood actress complaining about three on a couch. And let’s forget the $400 for now. The secret to casting this thing is casting a wide net—a net we can cast with Randy’s media skills. Leave it to him to recruit the actors. He’ll work it out.”

My mouth opened but I could not speak the words I found. They were: “Our future is all behind us.”


Copyright © 2019 by Randy Bechtel

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Email Randy Bechtel at rb@thebabyboomerstory.com