Author's success with sleuthing soirees is no mysteryJAMES CHRISTIAN and his wife, Jerri, first got involved in murder mystery dinners when they were living in San Diego, where Christian was head of San Diego State University's musical theater program for six years.Two companies in San Diego - Events West and Custom Productions - produced mystery dinner evenings and other special events, and the Christians performed with both groups.

"But I always toyed with maybe going them one better," Christian told us recently. "I was intrigued by the challenge of writing mysteries."

When Christian, a Murray native, returned to Utah two years ago to accept a position at Weber State University, at one of the first faculty meetings he attended Ron Ladwig commented that the theater department had committed to produce a centennial event (for then-Weber State College) at the Raddison Hotel in Ogden.

Christian volunteered to help write the show. He was locked into creating a script for 13 characters, because the cast had already been chosen.

Using what he learned from his San Diego experience, Christian wrote "Supernatural Causes," a mystery centered on the alleged opening of a time capsule from a WSC cornerstone.

When one of the artifacts in the capsule - a music box - began to play, the lights suddenly dimmed, strange music was heard . . . and an antebellum ghost came into the room, spouting vengeance on the crowd. When she left, one of the characters was found dead.

Christian said if he did this show again, he would condense it to have fewer characters.

Although he was influenced by what he learned from the two companies in San Diego, he has also learned to avoid some of their mistakes.

"One company's stuff was just far too skeletal - just one scripted section, with the audience left to create everything else. This leaves too little structure and the cast is forced to rely on its own creativity," he said.

At the other extreme, the other San Diego company "was far too wordy. The scripts were cumbersome and there was absolutely no way to solve them," he added.

"For a good evening of mystery, you need the proper seeds and clues, even if they're thrown in just once," said Christian, who relies on more tangible clues - something in print or something a character is carrying or wearing.

Chameleons has been successful in working with Sherwood Hills Resort, where chef Donald Darany works to plan the dinner menus around each mystery dinner's theme.

The first production at Sherwood Hills, "Death on Deck," which took place aboard a cruise ship, featured a lavish seafood buffet. (This production was so popular it was presented twice.)

"Slaughter on the Strip" featured a Vegas-style prime rib buffet, and the latest production, "Till Death Do Us Part," was about the joining of two feuding Italian families through marriage, allowing guests to dine on ravioli while unraveling clues.

Chameleons maintains an ensemble of talented performers for its productions, and Christian is busy writing new scripts.

"Eventually I'd like to have a Kleenex box file of scripts that we can just keep pulling them out when we need to do them," he explained.

As in "Slaughter on the Strip," Christian is always looking for situations that lend themselves to conflict "and lots of humor."

The company's relationship with Sherwood Hills began a few months ago when owner Darlene Caldwell called to see about holding mystery dinners at the resort.

Christian suggested trying it for three months to see if they could develop a following.

So far, the dinners have been successful and the Chameleons company is booked through November for several dates.

When he's not writing mysteries, Christian is busy with the musical theater department at WSU, including the school's annual Utah Musical Theatre series during the summer.