Sleuth Kings Review

It was the end of a painfully long day when the light bulb flickered at my desk.  I wasn’t sure if it needed to be changed or if the electricity bill was past due.  Business wasn’t going well and if it continued like this any longer, I might have to pack up my business.  A knock at the opaque glass door where my name was painted startled me.  That’s when she walked in.  She was beautiful despite her red puffy eyes.  “Excuse me.  Are you the private investigator?” she asked.  End scene.  Whatever happened to the old detective stories?  Or a private investigator set in the classic noir style with lots of fedoras?  Well the practice is still alive and well with Sullivan King and the monthly subscription box Sleuth Kings.

Once a month you will receive a case file to help Sullivan King solve a mystery.  Usually a murder mystery but the stories vary.  Each file consists of roughly three pages of story and four clues that are in the form of puzzles.  Once you solve the mystery the story is concluded in a separate envelope titled Epilogue.  What really makes this box pop though is that you get to talk with Sullivan King himself during the investigation via email.  Sullivan and you will work through the clues together until the mystery is solved and the day is saved.  Except for whoever was murdered in the first place. 

The email works by sending a message to Sullivan on the web page for that month’s mystery.  It’s all automated, but I like to write Sullivan messages as though I were really on the case with him.  I usually start with, “Hey Sully, what have you got for me on this case?”.  Once you send the initial message, all you have to do is reply to the emails without changing the email title so the computer knows where you are in the story.  If you need to talk about clue 1, you simply include “clue 1” in the body of the email and Sullivan will comment and help you out with that clue.  Once you have the solution, include “solution” in the body of the email and Sullivan will let you know what he found out.  The system works really well as long as you follow the directions on how to communicate.  The directions are told to you several times so you can’t miss them. 

The puzzles for the box range in style, puzzle type, and complexity.  The box starts with the four clues, but as you progress you will usually run into two or more puzzles that Sullivan will send you or that you’ll find by going to a website.  Some of the puzzles I understood right away and some of them I don’t think I would have ever solved.  There was one in the last box that I asked for all the hints and finally the solution and I still have no idea how they came to that conclusion.  It’s difficult to make brand new puzzles every month and sometimes I don’t think their puzzles work out as smoothly as they should.  For the most part though, the puzzles are always original and clever.  They are themed with the story and usually make sense with the story, in the sense that if everyone involved in a crime always wrote down encrypted clues to help you solve it. 

Inevitably with every puzzle box or book, you’re going to get stuck.  If you do all you need to do is email Sullivan King and he can help you out.  For each puzzle you will receive one hint and the solution.  The hint will explain to you roughly how you might solve the puzzle.  Usually the hint will make the solution obvious and you’ll just have to do the leg work to complete it.  Once you ask for the solution, Sullivan will solve it for you and discuss what to look at next.  If you want a lighter hint, the last of the printed pages is Sullivan’s initial take on each clue.  You can skip this page if you’re a pro and want to solve everything on your own.  This system is smooth until you get into the final puzzles that aren’t one of the initial clues.  A couple times I had to go through the motions of asking Sullivan to solve several puzzles that I already completed just so he can catch up to me and ask if I need a hint on the new puzzle. 

The stories are fairly simple making this more of a puzzle box.  You will hardly ever have to solve the mystery with deduction as the clues you gather will spell out “who dun it” for the most part.  There is an ongoing back story where Sullivan is looking for his missing father.  After you conclude the case, Sullivan continues to email you with updates on his search with additional puzzles and websites that continue the story.  You can even catch up to the story at any time without having to buy all the previous boxes. 

Similar boxes will sometimes include little trinkets or objects that are related to the story.  It’s rare in this box but they will include the occasional item if it’s needed to solve a puzzle.  I recently found a treasure and was rewarded with a tiny plastic treasure box and a penny, so that was exciting.  This box is more focused on the puzzles however and will take you around 2-3 hours to solve everything.  The trinkets in other boxes are highly over-rated and the Sleuth Kings give your money’s worth in good content. 

If you love puzzles and playing detective, this is the box for you.  Although the story doesn’t involve much deduction except when solving the puzzles, you’ll still get your monthly detective fix.  The unique email system makes this box a must try for me.  It seems like it could be a simple script but it adds so much excitement, especially as you’re waiting to see what Sullivan King found with your results.  They recently started a Rookie Detective subscription that is cheaper and should only take an hour to solve.  Or you can jump into Master Detective which has taken me 2-3 hours to solve.  You can even send them your address to get a free post card puzzle.  Good luck though because I have never solved that thing.  With that said, never leave a postcard puzzle unsolved!  Allright, I’ll give it another shot.

-J.C. Mystery Detective

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Imagine if you were rummaging through a library and discovered an old book.  This book seemed rather plane at first, but inside were not only the text of the story but also a hand-written discussion between two people trying to solve a mystery.  Stuffed between the pages were several items that only added to enigma. This is exactly what you will get with the book titled S. or Ship of Theseus by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.

So let’s be honest.  Doug Dorst probably did a vast majority of the work.  But it was an idea that J.J. Abrams had and Doug Dorst helped him turn into a reality.  S. is really the overall experience as the book is titled Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka.  This copy of the book in English was translated by F.X. Caldeira who we will find out knew the mysterious V.M. Straka.  Two readers communicate and discuss the mysteries of the story by writing to each other in the margins of the book.  The book is filled with various documents, postcards, maps, and a compass decoder ring.  There is a lot more to the story than what appears on the surface.

The Ship of Theseus, or the text story of the book, is unfortunately weak.  The idea behind this book would have been much better executed if the story was worth reading.  We follow a man who has lost his identity.  He ends up on a ship where everyone’s mouth has been sewn shut and the destinations of the ports seem to transcend time.  He frequently meets up with freedom fighters against their country’s tyrannical leader or corporate leader or something.  He becomes an assassin and starts blindly carrying out missions as he tries to discover his purpose in life.  The two characters in the margins lead us to believe that this is all metaphorical representation of what the author, V.M. Straka, was going through as it mirrors his mysterious life.  Even the translator notes the parallels between them.  I struggled through this book thinking it will all be worth it with a satisfying ending.  It was a difficult read and it just abruptly ends with no real resolution.  I never actually watch it, but I imagine it was something like the Sopranos. 

Almost nothing is known about V.M. Straka, the author of The Ship of Theseus.  There are several theories about who he or she may have been.  Straka has written 18 books prior to the Ship of Theseus which would be the last.  Straka either died or retired after this book was released even though it was originally unfinished and missing the 10th chapter.  Straka’s books are so provocative that they have “toppled governments” and “shamed ruthless industrialists”.  Straka was probably a spy or a freedom fighter, but his enemies thought of him as a terrorist.  This book has so much character and so much to build from that it was a real shame to me that it didn’t play out like it could have. 

The theme surrounds the idea of identity.  The ship of Theseus is an ancient philosophical question.  If Theseus had a ship and eventually had to replace a wood plank, followed by a sail, then some rope, then an anchor.  Over time more and more of the ship will be replaced with a new item.  At what point is the ship no longer the original ship?  If a single board or nail remains from the original, is it still the ship of Theseus?  What if nothing remains from the original?  What if you took all the original parts that were removed and assembled them to create another ship?  Which ship is the true ship of Theseus or do they both have that identity now?  I think this was a great concept to build the experience of S. from.  The characters from the main story as well as our vandal friends both struggle with identity as the story progresses.  The philosophy of the ship of Theseus is also brought up in stories like Star Trek.  If Scottie beams you to another location, but the atoms used to create the new you were not physically you before, are you still the original?  Technically the cells in your body are replaced slowly anyway and so there will be several times in your life where nothing that made you physically will be the same as before.  Every seven years supposedly.  Just let all this sink in and have an existential crisis. 

The inserts and the overall aesthetic of the book is fantastic.  The book itself feels aged and well-used.  There is a map made on a napkin and a newspaper on the crisp “newspaper paper”.  The ink from the two characters in the margins looks real but isn’t indented like a pen writing would be.  Even if the story fell short a little for me, I will still keep it forever just for the beauty of it.  Nobody would see this thing and not be immediately intrigued to pick it up and bury themselves in it.   

It appears as though the translator, F.X. Caldeira, has been writing codes into the footnotes of each chapter.  There are 10 chapters and each chapter ends in a footnote.  Each chapter has a different way of encoded the secret message but there are definitely secrets to be found.  They appear to be the translator’s way of secretly communicated to the author V.M. Straka.  This was the main reason I wanted to read this book.  The idea of a “normal” book that contained secrets and codes sounded awesome.  My only gripe with this is that the two characters writing in the margins have solved just about all of them or at least tell you how to solve them.  They aren’t speaking directly to you, just trying to solve the mystery themselves.   I know there is a lot more secrets to this book such as what to do with the compass encoder.  The rest of it seems like a crazy amount of work to solve though.  I’m sure someone has solved some if not all the books mysteries on the internet somewhere.  However, the difficulty level is somewhere in the realm of finding the secret messages in the Shakespeare plays.  It’s definitely there, but how much work are you willing to put in to solve it?

The conversations between the characters that are handwriting in the book are vaguely interesting.  Most of the guides to reading this book will tell you to skip these the first time you read the book.  I think this is good advice if you want to be reading this book for a month or two.  I read it all at once and it was a bit of a nightmare.  First of all, it doesn’t really make sense for two people to communicate this way.  How would they know when the other has written something in the book?  Plus, they go back and forth hundreds of times.  They would have literally been in the same library staring at each other as they both took turns writing in it.  That aside, it’s not always in chronological order and it gets really confusing.  My biggest problem is that I’m not sure there was a resolution to their story in the book.  I have no idea if they solved their issues or solved the mystery of V.K. Straka like they were aiming for.  Maybe that’s where I’m supposed to come in and solve the book, but like I said it would take months or more. 

J.J. Abrams is the master of mystery.  He has a way to start a story that is bursting with intrigue and secrets.  His problem is that he is more of an idea person.  Lost was amazing for the first few seasons, but then it dragged and dragged, and nobody seemed to know how to end it.  The Cloverfield series got people hooked with the viral marketing every single time, just to get an okay movie every single time.  He made or sponsored a mystery box that I’m glad I didn’t get.  The idea was amazing where you had to solve a puzzle to get into a wooden box that contained an exclusive deck of cards.  But the puzzle was just an anagram and the exclusive cards were boring at best.  He has amazing ideas, but he really needs someone else to write his endings.  For this book, that writer was not Doug Dorst. 

Ultimately, I think this was an attempt to make something as mysterious and addictive as House of Leaves.  It looks beautiful and if you’re into this sort of book it’s worth picking it up for sure.  Just don’t expect to be moved by a fantastic story or groundbreaking codes as it slightly failed for me in that regard.  It’s mediocre as both a book and a puzzle.  I think if the ending to the story was better then I would have liked it a lot more.  I understand the story and that the last chapter was probably written by the translator, but it was just underwhelming.  Never leave a book mystery unsolved!

-J.C. Mystery Detective

Murder Mystery Box Review

Murder mysteries provide the perfect balance of mystery and suspense.  The killer is most certainly one of the suspects our brave detective has encountered in the story.  Despite the danger, our hero marches forward to bring the killer to justice.  Being right there in the thick of it with the detective and testing your skills against theirs is exciting.  Murder Mystery Box provides you with the opportunity to help solve a murder using your wit and deduction skills.   

Murder Mystery Box is a quarterly subscription that sends you a box full of contents needed to solve a murder.  Each box contains a journal that a witness or detective wrote during the events surrounding the murder.  Also included are seven bags of evidence which can vary from newspaper clippings, receipts, and small objects.  Everything you need is contained within the box so there is no online elements or websites.  There are also no hints or clues provided so you’ll be on your own to solve the murder.

The story is written in a first-person journal format.  As you progress through the story you will be told when to open evidence bags.  After opening the last evidence bag, you will have a warning page that explains that you now have everything you need to make your deductions.  At this point you should go through all the evidence and come to a conclusion on the identity of the murderer.  After that, the journal continues where they gather the suspects and go over the evidence.  The writer then reveals the murderer and all the evidence that points to them.  In the traditional fashion, the murderer fesses up and usually says something along the lines of “…and I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” The journal is roughly one hundred pages and the whole game takes around 1-2 hours to solve depending on your reading speed and how much time you spend going over the evidence.

The journal provides the narrative for the main story.  The writer typically starts with an excuse of why they are writing down their thoughts and conversations.  I think this is unnecessary considering there wouldn’t be a story without the journal.  Despite this attempt at realism, the journal doesn’t read perfectly like a journal.  It doesn’t break the first-person narrative, but it goes into detail all the conversations and reactions from the other people and suspects in the case.  Sometimes it’s written in the past tense and sometimes written as if the events are occurring real time.  Sometimes it’s written down immediately after interviews and events when it might not be appropriate for the character to write.  It’s a little nitpicky but it’s not really written how a journal should be written.

The evidence bags are the only thing that separate this box from being just a murder mystery novella.  As you progress through the story, it will instruct you when to open an evidence bag.  The first evidence bag almost always contains some cards with images of the characters. This is helpful considering you don’t get much distinction between characters in the narrative.  The rest of the evidence bags contain photos, newspaper clippings, maps, and anything else you might need to help you along the way.  They are usually designed so that you are collecting and seeing the evidence at the same time as the writer.  This is the strongest part of the box. 

Unfortunately, almost all the evidence could be a photo in the book rather than a separate piece of paper.  There is a lack of objects that you would find in other similar subscription companies.  It’s true that most of the other companies include useless trinkets that aren’t always related to the story.  But when charging $27.50 for a very short murder mystery, there needs to be something extra.  The only box I tried that had something like this was the Masquerade Murder which included a masquerade mask.  Just a little something that people can keep on a shelf to remember the game and justify the cost. 

The characters always feel a little flat and don’t stand out.  The story is short, so character development is pretty much out the window.  Instead the writer just explains people and their history. On top of that, this is another box that is in desperate need of some diversity.  I haven’t played the more recent boxes, but I have played six boxes and almost all the characters were younger white people.  All the characters images look like stock photos if they aren’t stock photos.  It might be a lack of diversity in stock photos but for the price they could take some original pictures. Any other photos included are not stock photos especially if they depict the murder scene. 

The stories vary in quality as much as any other murder mystery series might.  Even Agatha Christie wasn’t popping out masterpieces every single time.  It’s true with this series as well.  Some of them can be really well thought out mysteries with just the right amount of evidence to make the reveal a great one.  Some of the stories are lack luster and fall short or have large logic leaps that make little sense.  Sometimes there will be a fun cameo from pop culture that I really enjoyed.  I’m pretty sure that Dean and Sam Winchester from Supernatural showed up in one of the stories.  Though they didn’t really add to the story, I thought it was funny. 

Despite some of the growing pains this company might have, I still had fun with the stories.  It’s always a bit more immersive when there’s items included such as evidence bags.  Unlike many mystery novels, you are invited to help solve the mystery in this game.  Mystery novels tend to drag you along on this wild ride, only to reveal it was some stranger that was never introduced in the story.  In this box, the killer is for sure one of the characters the writer interacting with.  One idea they could use is providing a link to a digital copy of the journal with the box.  This way you can read the journal at the same time as your significant other or family or friends and work together on the evidence.  As is, there’s a little too much reading to read aloud the whole story or pass the journal around.

So if you have the funds and want to try out a murder mystery novella with some physical evidence, give this box a shot.  It might be a great way to get a young teenager to start reading more or add a little more excitement than a normal book.  It would also make an excellent gift to the murder mystery lover in your life.  We all know one, and if you don’t, it’s probably you! And remember, never leave a murder mystery unsolved!  Especially when they might be one of the six suspects sitting in the same room as you!

-J.C. Mystery Detective