It was a night of sleuthing, wine tasting and fine eating at the Cary House Hotel as guests gathered on a Saturday night to solve a murder at Downturn Abbey.
A takeoff on the highly acclaimed series Downton Abbey, 40 to 50 people signed up for the murder mystery arranged jointly by the Cary House and Cordelia Smythe Mysteries on Nov. 9.
Gathered at Downturn Abbey (aka the Cary House) to officially welcome the new heir to the estate, the Gotsum clan was there at the invitation of the Seventh Earl of Gotsum. With three daughters and no sons, Gotsum was having to pass the estate to the nearest male relative — one Archibald “Archie” Smythe, a distant cousin from Scotland.
As the guests awaited the arrival of Smythe, they gaily drank champagne, ate hors d’oeuvre, and listened to period music played by pianist Peter Glick on the Cary House’s 1876 Chickering Square grand piano.
A few of those in the crowd were locals, but many had traveled from Chico, Salinas, Sacramento and other places for the weekend adventure.
One of those was Sue Armstrong, a resident of Antioch, who was there for a birthday celebration along with her husband and friends.
“I love Downton Abbey and I love getting to do a murder mystery that is paired with delicious wine and food,” she said.
Soon the Downturn Abbey cast were announced to the assembled guests including Hunter Gold, the seventh Earl of Gotsum along with his daughters Lady Catherine, a woman who had no intention of seeing another woman addressed as Lady Gotsum along with a second daughter, Lady Jane, a budding suffragette.
Joining them was Lady Van der Sluty — Lord Gotsum’s sister and a saucy flirt who was briefly married to the much older Earl of Van der Sluty before he passed away, bequeathing her most of his assets. With her was Reginald Griffin, Earl of Van der Sluty and step-son of Lady Van der Sluty. He inherited the estate and title when his father died but not the assets. The mother of Lord Gotsum, the Dowager Countess of Gotsum, also put in an appearance as did eventually Archibald “Archie” Smythe, the new heir to Downturn Abbey.
Meanwhile bustling about catering to the guests was Mrs. Kettle, a cook at Downturn Abbey, who had been employed there for 30 years and was retiring that night. And of course there was a butler, Mr. Harrison, another longtime employee of Downturn Abbey.
As the guests were escorted to the dining room and plied with their first wine tasting, Lord Gotsum announced that his sister, Lady Van der Sluty had taken ill. Shortly thereafter, he reentered and announced, to everyone’s shock, that she had passed away. With great solemnity, the guests were escorted to a back room where Van der Sluty was laid out like a dead mackerel.
There the guests were duly informed that she had died around 5:35 p.m. of an allergic shock after consuming shellfish. However there was no evidence she had eaten any shellfish.
The guests were further told that her exposure to the offending shellfish had been sometime between 30 minutes and two hours prior to death and that the killer had full access to Downturn Abbey.
As the assemblage left the room, Mrs. Kettle added the aside that, “I always knew she would die on her back.”
Back in the dining room, the guests were divided into three teams with all teams visiting the same three scenes for clues. Each group was accompanied by a different cast member. Mrs. Kettle, the cook, went with the blue team as its guide. The first crime scene, a small pantry behind the dining room, was filled with memorabilia, food, and an old cast iron stove. Prominently displayed were cans of crab bisque, clam chowder and smoked mussels.
Was the killer taunting us or was this a red herring?
After sniffing around, the group finally found some clues: an old photograph of the Downturn Abbey staff that included a young servant girl named Mildred and a handsome young footman named John. Mildred’s face had been “X’d” out in the photo but there were three tiny hearts drawn above the picture of John. Mrs. Kettle was also among those in the picture.
Another clue was an obituary for Mildred saying that she had committed suicide. Mrs. Kettle confided that at the time, Mildred was unmarried and with child.
The tension thickened as the guests wondered if identifying the killer too soon would interfere with the next wine tasting.
Luckily the answer was no as everyone reassembled in the dining room for some delectable food catered by Heyday Café and more wine pairings from four local wineries. The wines served that evening were from True Vine Winery, Colibri Ridge Winery, Cantiga Wineworks and dk Cellars.
Wrested from the wine yet again, the team was hussled off to the next crime scene: upstairs to Lady Van der Sluty’s bedroom. Her unmade bed and two champagne glasses at first threw us off. But in the wastebasket was the real clue: a torn up note with the crest of Downturn Abbey on it that said: “You broke a young girl’s heart. Dashed all of her dreams and left her. You are a viper. Poison to everything you touch. Tonight justice will be served.”
Two other clues in the room were an old photograph of Lady Van der Sluty and her husband, with her husband’s picture folded back, and a second picture of a young man who looked suspiciously like John the footman.
Back in the dining room, there was more wine and more eating. But mixed in was the serious business of comparing notes and theorizing about who was the likeliest person to be the murderer. Cui bono, everyone asked themselves.
With one last scene to visit, the blue team trotted off to the lobby of the Cary House. Three clues awaited them there: one note on the piano said “All of me 1931.” Another note was stuck to a book and said “I’m confessin’ 1930.” However the clincher was a bottle of clam juice stuck in a potted plant. At long last! The murder weapon!
With one last wine pairing — a dessert wine — and a gooey brownie to go with it, each guest was asked to identify who the murderer was and why and to write it down. (If you think you know the who and the why, go to page B5 to see if you’re correct.)
The evening ended with the revealing of the murderer and motive, plenty of laughter and applause for the cast, and a promise that there will be more murder mysteries to follow at the Cary House.
As the guests left, they commented on the evening. “I loved it,” said Sharon Barbour of Georgetown. “It was lots of fun. It was entertaining and different to do. Plus, I’ve always wanted to stay at the Cary House.”
Deborah Willcox, from Sacramento, said the same. “When we first signed up, we didn’t know what it would entail. But it was a lot of fun. They made it fun and interesting to do. The cast was also really good at staying in character.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.