Vintage Detective Birthday Party – Planning, My Dear Watson


My youngest son loves puzzles and codes and detectives and mazes.  I had a little time off at the beginning of the year, you may have heard it referred to by some tom-fool name like furlough, or longest furlough in U.S. history or something like that.  So I had a wee bit of time on my hands to really plan out a detective party worthy of Nancy Drew herself.  Which was great, because this party took a lot of brain-work that made planning essential.  Fortunately I like to plan (and across the universe, the totality of all my friends just laughed simultaneously because they heard me understate how much I like to plan).  I bounced around a bit on Pinterest between spy party, detective party, and escape room and hit upon a hybrid idea of needing to solve puzzles to come up with the combinations to unlock the Maltese Falcon who holds the birthday candle around his neck.   Due to all the extra time on my hands (thanks gridlock!) I scouted out a community space which seemed just right for my mysterious plans.

I planned to have 6 stations with some sort of mystery to solve at each station in three corners of the room, with the fourth corner as the dining space, and a table in the middle of the room with the Maltese Falcon locked in a cage with 6 locks. The detectives had to rotate through each station, solve the mystery and write down the combo on their clipboards, and then we gathered at the end to see if we had the right combos to unlock the Falcon. And so, to the stations!

Station 1: Detective Skills


This station was a way for them to test their skills of observation. It was intended to be a chemistry station involving invisible ink. However the methods were either too messy for a space I would have to clean up (or bye bye security deposit – grape juice anyone?), or required closer supervision than I was willing to be responsible for (open flame under a paper or an iodine dropper). After a lot of dithering, I eliminated a lock from the intended 6 and just made this basically a free play space. At this station the detective had to use the magnifying glass to read tiny print, use chromatography to read a hidden message, and go on a scavenger hunt.


  • Tiny print was a simple case of an encouraging message in about 3 point font.
  • For chromatography I applied red cellophane that is used for gift baskets to an extra photo matte that I had handy. I then printed a message in red ink and covered that with a different message in blue ink. When you place the cellophane over it it filters out the red words and leaves you with the blue words.
  • For the scavenger hunt I had them find objects in the room or people in the room with a particular characteristic, ending with them finding a little sweet treat in Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine.

Station 2: Geography



IMG_1439I applied points to about 20 states and then asked questions that would result in one state as the answer. Each answer was plugged into a formula to give the detective the combo for one of the locks.

Station 3: Bletchley Park (and a history lesson)


Did I ever mention that I have a history nerd/WWII issue? Yeah, it was full blown here. So naturally I spent a lot of time on the details on this one. Bletchley Park was a huge intelligence hub for Britain during WWII. It is where Alan Turing and Co. broke the Nazis’s “unbreakable” Enigma coding machine, and oh yeah, invented the first computer. If you ever saw The Imitation Game I don’t have to explain any more.

If you hate history or it bores you, skip this paragraph. I also may not have ever mentioned that I work in diversity and equal opportunity, and I couldn’t resist injecting a little history and diversity. I saw an opportunity to slyly teach the kids about great things coming from many people. I knew that despite being a brilliant mathematician and the man who shortened the war and saved countless lives, Alan Turing was ruined because it was discovered he was gay.  Obviously a big no no in those days. I had also recently read a book called The Woman Who Smashed Codes about Elizebeth Smith, an amazing but humble woman who along with her husband did the seminal legwork in codebreaking and cryptology. They basically created the NSA. I had already known for a long time about the Navajo Code Talkers utilizing the unique characteristics of the Navajo language to create a truly unbreakable code that saved Marine lives in the Pacific Theater.


I researched codes and came up with Morse, Navajo, and Napoleonic/pigpen. The detectives had to solve a message in each of these codes which would point to one of the three historical figures. I assigned a key color to each person and the code stated that the right key was the person who invented the computer.  So they had to read about each person. Ssssssneakyyyyyyyyy. Learn you some diversity and history.

Station 4: Puzzle Box


I’m not sure how the heck I came up with this.  I researched puzzles on Pinterest and somehow it morphed into a 16-block puzzle.  The blocks in the right order spelled out “The Combo is 19 37 34.”  The puzzle element to this was each cube had a certain number of dots on each side that needed to be matched with the other blocks touching it.  I created it by drawing a 16-block grid on a sheet of paper and then applying dots to each side until it made sense – what the liberal arts crowd call trial and error and the sciences crowd calls the scientific method.  In any case I am still not sure how I came up with this, it seemed easy but my co-worker Irene looked at me a little wide-eyed/side-eyed.  I started to think I was having a Russell Crowe/A Beautiful Mind moment but in any case I produced a puzzle.


Station 5:  Library at 221B Baker Street


Again, this was a Pinterest inspiration. My goal was to create a washi tape line across the spines of the books so that they would have to put in a certain order.  At first it started as just a prop library corner with the leftover cardboard fireplace I just happened to have.  I know, you’re asking WHO just happens to have a leftover cardboard fireplace?  That’s right, me.  A Christmas door-decorating contest at work that I lost in a total and utter miscarriage of justice left me with a cardboard fireplace that I brooded next to for 3 months in my office rubbing my hands over it like it was a real heat source.  After that it just sat in my office for over a year, or if you look at it in the positive light, waited for just such an occasion.


This is the door that did not win.  It’s possible I’m still bitter.  Terribly bitter.

Where was I?  Books, right.  Originally I was going to use actual books from the thrift store and make one of them a book safe.  I just couldn’t bring myself to deface any books.  Maybe Finnegan’s Wake because it’s barely a book, it’s just gibberish.  I guess still resent being forced to “read” it in college and look for meaning in, again, gibberish.  I ended up making faux books out of cereal boxes cut in half and turned on their side.  I then covered them with brown paper and covered just the spine with craft paper in different colors.


There were two books of each color with an author and a number.  I applied the washi tape in a continuous line on half the books and a random line on the others.  The backdoor I created for myself was that the right books had author’s names on them and the wrong books had character’s names on the spines.  Once the books were placed in order the numbers on the books were plugged into a formula based on their color and voila, next combo was solved.  And for those of you playing at home, 221B Baker Street is Sherlock Holmes’ address.

Station 6:  Whose Shoes?  Shoe print matching


The final station was another key-matching exercise.  The purpose was to match shoe prints to the shoe prints of one of three suspects who each had a different color key.  I found three willing and vaguely familiar volunteers to pose for mugshots of potential suspects.

I then associated a shoe print to each of them.  I then printed 6 shoe prints, three of which matched the suspects’ prints, on color paper.  Each print had a number on it, and each suspect’s photo had a number as well.  Based on the formula, adding the right shoe print numbers together would point to the right suspect and the right color key.


The Maltese Falcon — How did it all turn out?



The detectives decided to team up as they went through the stations.  I had an adult at each corner of the room covering two stations to help out any detective who go stuck.  The puzzle box was the most difficult and and fortunately I thought it would be best if I covered that station.  Nevertheless everyone seemed to get through all the stations fairly smoothly and all in all it took us about 45 minutes to rotate through everything.  The detectives breathed down my neck gathered around the Maltese Falcon table so we could go over their answers, open the locks, and retrieve the 8 candle.  

Detectable Delectables


One of the kids asked if there was a food station, ha ha.  I thought that was pretty funny.  I set the table with book cover placemats.  Since this was a more vintage theme, I felt no shame borrowing from my own childhood and excluding modern children’s detectives for inspiration.  I color copied the Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, the Maltese Falcon and Sherlock Holmes.  It added a small pop of color to the table.  The actual tables I covered with simple white craft paper.  I made evidence boxes out of some leftover boxes from work to serve the food by applying an evidence label to the sides of the box.  My youngest son is allergic to wheat, so I wanted to make the menu as allergen friendly as possible.  We had popcorn, tortilla chips, and string cheese and crackers.  To make chip consumption less of a germy affair I divided them between some cut-down paper lunch bags.  I also provided nacho cheese sauce for the chips in individual containers which would have looked suspiciously  like baby food containers had a label not been applied to the cover.  To make it healthy I provided boxed raisins which no one ate, of course.  (Some kids did eat the fruit salad I provided for the adults through, which was fine by me).

Logan loves little ice cream cups, so I decided to serve those as well as mini chocolate donuts (cops, donuts etc), since Logan does not eat cake, gluten free or otherwise.  Again with the germs — I was in the middle of demonstrating to the kids to use a cheap pair of plastic tongs when they snapped in half with perfect sitcom clarity in my hand in the total silence of everyone listening to my instructions.  I mean when do 8 year olds ever listen quietly?  Only when I’m about to provide them with some comic relief at my own expense and embarrassment apparently.  To cap it off I also broke the bottom off the damn 8 candle, Logan was already into his ice cream, and I forgot a lighter, so we never lit the candle or sang happy birthday.  Ooops.

Goody Bags 


I tried to make detective kits/briefcases out of Whole Foods cookie boxes.  I was certainly willing to consume the necessary amount of cookies to have enough boxes, but ultimately did not want to invest the time in spray painting them, replacing the cellophane, and adding a handle.  In retrospect that seems like it’s not a big deal but Future Melody usually has a difficult time rationalizing Past Melody.  Kinda like when you try to figure out what you ever saw in that ex of yours.  Anyhoo, I opted to make evidence goody bags by running brown paper bags through the printer on the card stock option to print an evidence label on the front.  For goodies I included a fingerprint card with instructions on how to make fingerprints (not that kids don’t know how to do that.   Just look at the passenger windows of my car), the obligatory magnifying glass, a notepad and color ink pen, and a small bag of detective snacks (mini powdered donuts).  I didn’t hear anyone complain, and you know kids are honest “Why do you have so much hair in your nose?”  “Why is your tummy so big?”
Wrapping it up

By this time there were about 15 minutes left.  I had supplies for Morse code bracelets, but there really wasn’t enough time for that.  Unfortunately it had rained earlier, so the kids couldn’t take advantage of the green space and playground.  Fortunately in anticipation of this I also brought a number of board games, which the kids seemed really engaged in.  Who knew?  I think I found next year’s party theme . . .

So I covered in this post the party in general and how I came up with the puzzles for each station.  There is a whole ‘nuther conversation to be had about decorative elements and how each formula actually looked, which is coming soon just as fast as I can type it.  Until then . . .