Who suspected dining and crime could make a perfect pairing? Well, it didn't take Sherlock Holmes to deduce the potential popularity of murder-mystery dinner theater.
Sometime between the salad and dessert on a recent Saturday night at the La Rose Hotel's restaurant in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square, diners were also served heaping helpings of motive, means and opportunity.
A six-month-old roving theater company called Entree to Murder gave its debut performance of Dorothy L. Sayers' classic murder mystery "Whose Body?" while waiters quietly delivered plates of salmon and cheesecake, and guests formed their theories about who might have done the murderous deed.
Most of them guessed wrong, but they went home happy anyway.
"I had a lot of fun," said one of the diners, Herb Williams of Santa Rosa, who was enlisted from the audience to don a wig and play the coroner in the show's final scene. A prominent local political consultant, Williams had no qualms about stepping into the spotlight.
"I thought this would be a kick, a change from the normal night out," he said.
The audience often becomes part of the show in these dinnertime crime dramas, popping up around Wine Country at restaurants, wineries and even casinos.
Details vary from venue to venue, but the basic format is this: During cocktails and dinner, actors mingle with the audience, staying in character and setting up the plot. Over the course of the evening, scenes may unfold during or between courses. Diners might be sent out for clues before salad or after the main course. Diners can question suspects. At the end of the night, they choose their culprits, and the villain is revealed.
Last month, the Parducci Wine Cellars in Ukiah hosted its second annual murder mystery dinner, with the Ukiah Players and South Ukiah Rotary presenting an original show, Keith Aisner's "Dead Man's Hand."
"The audience loves it. They eat it up," said Aisner, a Ukiah graphic designer and advertising writer who wrote, directed and starred in the show. "We sold 230 tickets in two days at $75 a ticket."
Encouraged by his success at Parducci, Aisner is launching his own troupe, called Murder Mystery Mendocino, and he already has staged a mystery dinner show at Sho-Ka-Wah Casino in Hopland.
Wineries rank among the most popular venues for murder mystery dinners. Last month, Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in Windsor held two of them, and Deerfield Ranch Winery in Glen Ellen has scheduled "Murder Mystery in the Cave" for Nov. 3.
With a background in more serious theater, Aisner admits he was clueless at first about the audience appeal of mealtime murder mysteries.
"I was the kind of person who hated murder mysteries," Aisner confessed. "I thought these murder-mystery dinner shows were more of a party game than anything else."
But when the South Ukiah Rotary Club came up with the idea of doing the shows as a fundraiser, Aisner got caught up in the process of casting actors and working with them in rehearsal to develop their characters.
Only part of the show is scripted. As actors interact with the audience, they improvise, based on Aisner's written characterizations and coaching.
"Everything clicked. Guests can't tell the difference between the script and the spontaneous parts," he said. "You really feel you're watching this story unfold."