Cracking the Clues

Two sleuths with a jaundiced eye and a writer's touch try to solve a puzzling Philly murder mystery in the Franklin Institute's 'Whodunit' exhibit.

July 14, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- The first mystery we have to crack is the parking garage.

We have been circling 20 minutes beneath the Franklin Institute, looking in vain for a parking space. We deduce, elementarily, that the lot would have been marked "full" if there were no spaces available.

It could be a labyrinth, says Sujata Massey, her imagination automatically drawn to the possibilities of boxwood mazes in English countrysides, where one might stumble on a poisoned vicar or two.

Is it possible we're going in circles, asks Laura Lippman, who is beginning to feel distinctly queasy. We are passing, for the third or fourth time, the same "P-1 Level" parking sign. This could be an important clue, she thinks.

We choose a Bronco as our landmark, circle again and -- bingo, it turns out we have, in fact, been going around the same level, under the illusion that we are steadily climbing. Once we figure out that 90 percent of the parking places lie beneath us, we descend into the bowels of the ill-lit parking garage. It would be a cliche to engage in a gunbattle in such a setting, so we escape unscathed, entering the museum.

It is not the most auspicious start for two local mystery writers who have decided to take the challenge of the "Whodunit" exhibit at the Franklin Institute, which invites visitors to solve a robbery and murder at the mythical Memory Diner.

The exhibit has been traveling the country, passing through Baltimore's Maryland Science Center along the way, but we are women with many deadlines and dead bodies in our lives, and this is our first chance to catch it together, a couple of modern-day Snoop Sisters.

We have agreed on the following ground rules:

We may confer and compare notes as we tour the exhibit.

We will try to use the same instincts we bring to our own distinctly different subgenres -- the "cozy" world of Sujata's Tokyo-based Rei Shimura books, in which relationships are at the root of everything, and Laura's slightly tougher P.I. point-of-view, where it is permissible -- nay, encouraged -- to shoot first and ask questions later.

We will "solve" the case separately, writing our solutions on pieces of paper and slipping them to our faithful manservant who has accompanied us here today. (We'll call him Archie.)

We will have dessert at lunch, preferably chocolate.

Chapter 1

"The Bud-ler Did It"

We enter the Memory Diner, where the chef is attempting to give a description of a man who robbed the restaurant earlier that evening. Armed with sheets identifying three suspects -- Adam Aldrich, Barry Benson and Cary Cannon -- we listen to "Detective Ruiz" interview the chef. (The chef and detective are mannequins, whose responses play on a taped loop, with a videotape of a signer for the hearing impaired.)

One fact quickly becomes apparent: Sujata loves the diner decor, which is suitably retro.

The chef is a perfectly horrible witness, which makes him all too true-to-life. The guy was tall, taller than me, he tells the detective. Laura doesn't have the heart to point out that the chef is on the short side, so a lot of men look tall to him. The robber's eyes and nose were "average," whatever that means, with a high forehead and wavy hair. That doesn't eliminate any of the suspects.

Oh, and he looked like my Uncle Bud, the chef says.

Now, if Sujata were writing this narrative, this final clue would be crucial. In the world of cozies, family connections are key. Who is this Uncle Bud? Does the chef like him? Does he have an alibi? Strangely, Detective Ruiz follows none of these leads.

Before leaving the diner, we have to watch a "news bulletin," showing a home videotape, in which a man who resembles "Adam Aldrich," dashes from the restaurant as two tourists wave from the front. Laura points out television reporters must never be taken seriously in detective fiction, except as corpses.

Sujata thinks it would make a nice twist if the waving tourists became suspects.

Chapter 2

Professor Plum in the Alley with a Knife (And a Bad Case of the Munchies)

We leave the diner and enter an alley, where a posted list instructs us to find 18 specific clues.

Oh, and there's a dead body, with a knife next to it.

We dutifully search the alley for all the clues, although it's difficult to see how much of it matters -- the animal fur caught in one trash can, the book of matches, the receipt from a museum exhibit (encased in Lucite, as opposed to the real trash that visitors have thrown away. Based on that debris, we should be looking for a killer with a serious case of Dorito fingers.)

We quickly zero in on three clues -- a knife, a packet of white powder and a trail of blood leading away from the body. Our faithful manservant reviews the three suspects and says: "I know who did it." We ignore him.

We can't help noticing that the hubcap in the alley belongs to a Subaru, which helped to pay for the exhibit. "Clue," asks Laura, "or corporate underwriting?"

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