Murder! in Iowa

I don’t remember exactly how we found ourselves having lunch together, me and my new friend Zeb.  Zeb is short for Zebulon, an interesting bit of trivia that I’d only first learned many years after we’d become friends.  You rarely meet people in life with interesting names that actually live up to them.  Zeb was a day trader and a diehard libertarian.  He’d grown up in Fairfield, Iowa, a small town an hour south of Iowa City, where we both now lived.  The town was home to a Maharishi school, and Zeb was engaged with the Maharishi community, though to this day I’m not completely sure what that even means.  Zeb was also, as I’d soon learn, an amazing all-around athlete who’d once been featured on a Wheaties box sold locally in his home town.  And until quite recently, Zeb didn’t wear jeans because apparently the men in his family have been blessed with trunk-like thighs that make them great at running and jumping but which make fitting into most modern cuts of jeans a near impossible feat.  Much of this I didn’t know at the time of our lunch, but even if I had, I’m not sure it would have prepared me for what came next.

“Do you play Clue?”  Zeb asked me during our lunch.

Do I play Clue?  Like the board game?  I’ve played Clue, of course, but it was clear from the tone of the question that this wasn’t what Zeb was asking.  Not did you, have you, would you, could you, but: Do you play Clue?  As in an ongoing thing.  As in it might be one of the things you shared about yourself should you have to give that ten second monologue when being introduced by Alex Trebeck on Jeopardy.  Yes, I’m a technical writer by day, but my real passion is for Trivia, and for Clue.

Now back in Maryland, where I’m from, people play various things in their spare time: golf, basketball, video games and even some card games like Poker and my favorite gin rummy rip-off, a game called Tonk that was highly prevalent in the cafeteria during high school.  But I’d never heard of anyone playing Clue, as though it was a thing people did more often than once a year when they couldn’t figure out something better to do with dinner guests or relatives staying a day too long.

“A few of us get together sometimes at lunch and play.  You should join us sometime.”

A few of us, I’d soon learn, referred to the three guys who another common friend, Uday, would deem “The House Husbands of Iowa City.”  Zeb, Tom and Andrew.  They were part time stay at home dads who had married into the good life by hitching themselves to doctors.  Tom and Andrew were also documentary film makers, and quite good ones I had surmised – though I’d first met them at a time when they were just getting started with a new project, apparently the least stressful stretch of time in making a documentary, which afforded them some time to play the Iowa City Clue circuit several days out of the week, as well as playing in two hour pick-up basketball games at some of Iowa City’s finest outdoor courts.

Clue is actually the Americanized name for Cluedo, which was invented in Britain during World War II because the curfew in Birmingham meant the game’s creator Anthony Pratt could no longer participate in the Murder mystery parties he so thoroughly enjoyed.  Each player takes on the identity of a character such as Miss White or Professor Plum all gathered together in an English manor of some kind.  The interesting thing about Clue is that the entire game centers around a murder (the original name of the game was Murder!), but who exactly was murdered or why is never broached, at least not in polite company.  The victim, I learned after some sleuthing of my own, is in fact the owner of the manor and goes by the name of Dr. Black (in the UK) or Dr. Boddy (in the US).  We know that he has apparently done well enough for himself to afford a nice mansion with ten rooms, replete with secret passageways and a bevy of doors for each room – but all other details about the good doctor are left to our imaginations.

And of course the point of the game is to figure out how our host has died – specifically to determine who killed him, in what room and with what weapon.  This is perhaps the strangest part of the game that no one seems to question – how did a murder take place and yet no one knows in what room, or with what weapon?  I’m no coroner, but give me five minutes with Mr. Boddy’s body and I could tell you whether he’d been shot or bludgeoned to death by a candlestick.  Instead of playing a he-said/she-said guessing game with one another, shouldn’t we be asking “Are there rope burns around his neck?”  And how about some actual evidence – fingerprints, DNA, and maybe some cell phone footage?  Imagine Sherlock Holmes trying to walk into a library to look for signs of a struggle, only to be told by the Scotland yard constable, “No, I’m afraid that’s not allowed.  No looking for evidence.  Gotta walk into each room in the house and take a guess – that’s the way it’s done around here.  Got a list of subjects for you, but you can’t interrogate them.  Got a body but it’s best you don’t get a look.”

If you are willing to simply accept that this is how murders are investigated in Britain, then it is just a matter of taking turns asking questions (or, starting rumors in the parlance of the game) to deduce who did it, where and with what weapon.  But don’t bother asking why – apparently motive, along with good forensic science, is not a particularly prominent feature of the British criminal justice system.

Of course I quickly learned from the House Husbands that there is much more to Clue than simply asking a bunch of repetitive questions.  For starters, before actually playing a game, you should take some time to consider the venue.  It turns out that Clue can be played in a variety of different environments.  One obvious choice is a coffee shop.  Other reasonable choices for Clue venues turn out to be Thai restaurants, Tex-Mex restaurants, and places where you can order Gyros.  It is ok to play at someone’s house from time to time, but that shouldn’t become a habit.  Playing Clue is as much about getting out and seeing the world as it is about flexing one’s mental muscles.

Once you have your venue, you will need a good strategy, especially when playing with professionals.  If you are a novice Clue player, you may think that one column of check-boxes on the little sheets they provide will suffice for each game.  But if you are a professional Clue player you understand that you will need a column for each player in the game.  Because playing Clue competitively requires tracking every little bit of information – who passed, who showed someone at least one card, and who has been in and out of the same room three times.  At the time I first started playing Clue, Zeb, Tom and Andrew were already using a system.

Some Clue players are slow to start, but then pick up speed, especially once they learn to master the system.  Myself, I started out slow, and then quickly plateaued.  In the dozens of Clue games I’ve played with these guys over the last few years, I have probably won two or three games total.  Every time we sit down to play I set up my checklist with my system.  And every time I assume that if the film major and the day trader can do it, certainly the physics major can do it too.  But after about two to three turns, I’m already far behind, my checklist taking on the appearance of a half finished Sudoku puzzle.  By the time it’s my turn to roll again I have lost all hope of catching up.  My mind, much like my body, is more tortoise than hare.  I’ll get there eventually, but I have no chance in something that comes down to thinking quickly on your feet – or in a chair while eating the best Green Curry I’ve ever had.

The most fascinating part of competitive Clue from my perspective is the after game debriefing.  Once someone wins, Tom, Zeb and Andrew will go back and break down every play like sportscasters analyzing an instant replay.

Tom: Dude, you were in the Library and I knew you knew the weapon and the person, but I couldn’t figure out if you knew the room, but two turns earlier you had already guessed the Library and it went all the way around and I thought – this guy knows something, so I had to make my move.

Zeb: Yeah, that was a gutsy move.  I was 80/20 on the room, so I was probably going to guess on my next turn.  

Listening to them talk this way I feel as though I’ve been playing an entirely different game.  They are discussing tactics and technique, recalling sequences of moves and following convoluted ‘what-ifs’ to their logical conclusions – all the while my eyes are glazed over and I’m thankful that I even remember which character I was during the last game.  Oh, you guys want to know my thoughts on that game?  Umm...Well… Me Roll.  Me guess.  Murder bad!   

Sometimes I think about the people who stumble upon our motley crew for the first time: the people gathered for a business luncheon, the elderly couple unfortunate enough to be seated at a nearby table, the waitress wondering where she will fit our plates.  They must feel what I felt when one weekday afternoon many years ago I walked over to a nearby basketball court to practice free throws only to find that it was occupied by three men in long robes, two holding oversized wooden swords and engaged in something that resembled battle, while the third stood nearby and acted as a sort of referee.  I would later learn that the term for this activity is LARPing – Live Action Role Playing – and that it was a popular activity among some people.  But at that moment I could only think about what I’d tell my friends when I got together with them later that evening: you are never going to guess what I saw when I went down to the court today.  I mean, its one thing for thirty something year old men to play some silly game in public, but this was in the middle of the day – don’t they have jobs?

At least the LARPers appeared to be honing some kind of combat skills.  Fighting, even pretend fighting with blunt wooden swords, requires some effort to master.  But for the untrained eye observing us from across the restaurant we may as well have been playing Candy Land.  They were playing Clue I tell you.  Honest to God.  Clue.  Not Chess, or Checkers, or even Monopoly where a little healthy business acumen can give you a slight edge, but Clue.  Roll.  Guess.  Check off something on your list.  And in the middle of the day – don’t they have jobs?  

If any the House Husbands have similar thoughts they don’t let on.  There are no signs of self-consciousness as they roll their dice and then place their orders.  Their body language doesn’t say ‘nothing to see here, keep moving’ – but instead speaks of a certain pride in this calling of theirs – and within minutes of starting the game I’ve bought into it lock, stock and barrel.  Suddenly I’m no longer avoiding eye contact with those around us, but welcoming their gaze: You see, you too can be a successful film maker, day trader, or technical writer and find time in your day to play Clue competitively.  You really can have it all!

Recently we gathered together on a Wednesday evening, at an hour when (almost) all our kids were in bed, and broke out Clue.  This time it was over a few bottles of thirty dollar wine at Andrew’s house, instead of fish tacos at the Saloon.  The House Husbands, myself, Andy K. and Uday.  Andy K. predated me on the Clue circuit.  But Uday, who had actually first introduced me to Zeb, sat ready to play his very first game.

We rarely played much anymore – the sun had already set on the Golden Era of Clue.  It’s ok, though.  Rituals get swapped.  We trade in Clue for Monopoly.  We swap metal revolvers for metal cars.  Guesses for cold hard cash.  The game itself is less important than those gathered with you around the board.

Before Clue, I had a handful of acquaintances and a friend or two in Iowa City, all of whom I had met through my wife.  After Clue, I had a group of friends that I could meet for drinks, play basketball with, and even invest in a failed fantasy football start-up together.  And the ties that were forged in the Library with the Candlestick were extended to our families – to Sunday evening dinners at Zeb’s, SuperBowl parties at Andrew’s and a nanny share for our daughters with Tom.

As we divided up the cards and put our pieces on the board, I looked across the table at Uday.  I wanted to warn him – this is not just a game to these people – don’t tread lightly.  But nothing I could say would prepare him.


  1. Jesse – I loved it! And laughed a lot! And it was delightful to get a glimpse into your thought process! Keep writing!!

  2. I must say, your perspective in this story drew me in fully. I think one of the reasons I really enjoy reading your words is that I get to know a little bit more of you each time. As I said before, you are a very talented writer, so keep on writing!

  3. One great thing about having awesome kids is they grow up and have friendships with creative and interesting people. Love your blog, look forward to more!

  4. That was a great read Jesse. I can’t believe you didn’t include my recollection of our first meeting.

  5. You wrote – “The game itself is less important than those gathered with you around the board.” That is a lesson i am still learning. But thanks to your story, i am no longer completely Clue-less 🙂

  6. Tonk… classic reference. Nicely written, makes me realize more than ever how much I miss this kind of comradery.

  7. You’re right. I can leave a comment without having an account. I just can’t like this. Well, I do like it anyway. I was most interested in the history of Clue, and now you have me wondering about the secret history behind some of my other favorite games.

  8. Jesse
    Your writing is so good! I really enjoyed this piece. I empathize with your anxiety.
    I can total ally see this published. The New Yorker!
    I will be reading your other essays soon!

  9. I knew you were a great writer from the notebook we passed back and forth in 8th grade. Clearly you have talent, so it’s great that your blog will now be a place to showcase it. I look forward to reading more.

  10. Appreciated the thoughts of Chris Lahr concerning the subtleties of racism. Especially appropriate given the reflections of Ajith Fernando regarding John Stott. The challenges of the 21st century are not much different than the 20th, though perhaps more complicated. The sins of our fathers (and mothers) passed down to us often come dressed in camouflage that require the Spirit’s discernment to keep us from following in the same destructive paths.

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