Solving a murder mystery in real life is no fun at all. You’ve got to investigate the crime scene, gather clues, interview witnesses, weigh motives, get a warrant, and finally make an arrest. You’re tripped up all along the way by annoying obstacles like habeas corpus, the Fifth Amendment, and relentless dockside shootouts and high-speed car chases through farmers’ markets. On top of all that, even the most meticulous detective risks having all their work undone during trial by some hotshot lawyer in a sharkskin suit.

Don’t you wish you could be involved in a murder mystery without the hard work, danger, and, above all, actual murder? That’s exactly the pleasure which Jest Murder Mysteries provides, all the satisfying accusatory finger wagging without having to replace the carpet afterward. If Sherlock Holmes had Jest Murder Mysteries, he’d have stuck to playing violin.

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Jest was founded by writer, actor, and director Randy Manning in St. Louis back in 1999. He had cut his teeth on some other murder mystery shows, learned what gelled and what didn’t in such a specialized production, and decided he could put on the ultimate one. So he did, and his specialized troops are now based in 15 cities and travel the country to put on dinner shows. Randy’s daughter, Leslie Franklin, has just taken over Jest and continues its whimsical business as Randy envisioned it.

Jest works like this: You pick the venue (which Jest will recommend, if you like), arrange dinner, and invite your guests. Then you pick which show you’d like, be it Bullets in the Bathtub, a mobster and flapper speakeasy romp, Death of Blackheart, a pirate hostage fantasy, or any one of their other themed productions. Jest will then ship out the actors needed to turn what otherwise might have been just another perfunctory feedbag affair into an interactive theater experience which your guests will remember for the rest of their lives, far more so than anything else accompanied by green beans with slivered almonds that they’ve experienced before.

Be certain, these aren’t the kind of murder mysteries which Agent Starling and Doctor Lecter would tackle together. They’re funny, improv-driven spectacles carried out by experienced stage actors. Jest’s performers include the alumni of plays and shows including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hairspray, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Monk. They adopt characters like Squint Leastwood, Fanny Dango, and The Crawdad Hunter, mill around with the dinner guests (who may adopt their own aliases, if they choose), and set the stage by the first course.

Everything goes nicely, with Bobby Bologna regaling your guests about all the late night deposits he has made in the East River, until dinner comes, and then BAM! Suddenly there’s a stiff, and it could be anyone’s doing. The actors and your guests set out impromptu theories about who dunnit, and then after dessert the climactic accusations are thrown. The culprit gets a trophy at the end rather than 30 to 50 years with good behavior.

Jest’s shows’ spontaneity makes them different every time, because the audience’s involvement is as crucial as the performers’. “One of our great strengths is how well our actors read their audience,” explained Leslie. “If grandma wants to sit back and watch things unfold, they don’t coax her into it. They simply give her a great show instead. But if they see someone eager to ham it up alongside them, then they identify the show’s greatest asset right then and there.”

Jest Murder Mysteries is a spicy way to make any dinner great. Whether you’ve got a company gathering, rehearsal dinner, birthday party, or any other reason to feed and entertain a group of people, Jest is your guys. Go to for a quote based on your plans, and then you can look forward to accusing your dear friends of bashing in the butler’s head with a candelabra.


By David Scheller