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|Health & Science|
|October 31, 1997|
Purity Knight was found dead in June in the woods near her home in Oxford, Miss.
She had been buried alive in a homemade coffin for an undetermined length of time, and received air and food through a passageway. The coroner's report indicated she died of malnutrition and exposure to the elements. She had been missing for 14 weeks.
In an effort to solve the case quickly, the Law Enforcement Division of Yoknapatawpha County posted all of its evidence on the Internet. Each Monday, detectives updated the data, which ranged from a list of suspects to the contents of Ms. Knight's safety-deposit box. An extensive investigation led the police to a suspect.
Sound possible, even realistic? That's the idea, says site "Mastermind" Tom Arriola. Many have been duped by the Crime Scene site, including a best-selling mystery author, who used her research sources to try to help "solve" the case, and staffers on "America's Most Wanted" who were interested in hiring him, Mr. Arriola says, because of his effectiveness at obtaining "official" documents.
On the Scene
Crime Scene has been on-line since January 1995, when, as Mr. Arriola says, "there were only 20,000 sites in the world, and most of them were Star Trek sites put up by computer geeks."
For his first mystery posting, Mr. Arriola used friends and acquaintances as his actors. "One night I asked a friend of mine to lay on the floor and act dead, and asked her boyfriend to take pictures." He says he began thinking about how much one can learn about someone through the contents of a purse, a glove compartment or a bedroom dresser.
"It's an interesting idea -- what would happen if you died right now, and what people would find in your house," Mr. Arriola says.
Mr. Arriola's experiences on an interactive soap opera have helped him keep users coming back to Crime Scene. "It's got the outrageous plot twists [of a soap opera] -- and the more outrageous it gets, the more people believe it's real."
Crime Scene is licensed to America Online, where the "detectives" make use of AOL's chat rooms for periodic interviews with characters from the investigations, including suspects and family members of the victims. But vigilant users tend to notice some suspicious characters eavesdropping in the room.
Mr. Arriola recently added an unobtrusive "Reality Check" to the bottom of the site's home page, which has helped cut back on the confusion. But the realism still unsettles some users. "People write me and say they're having nightmares," he says.
A Quick Mystery Fix
For those interested in a quicker mystery fix, TheCase.Com offers a "Mini-Mystery" every Monday and Wednesday, and a photo-inspired "Flash Mystery" on Fridays. Users can also sign up to receive free e-mail mysteries each week, which have varying degrees of difficulty. The e-mail mysteries are sent to 42,000 people, who can then log in to the site's chat area and discuss possible solutions.
TheCase attracts everyone from casual fans to die-hard enthusiasts, says Steve Schaffer, president of Newfront Productions, the San Francisco company that produces the site and its parent, MysteryNet.com. "People have become reliant on it for their daily dose of mystery," Mr. Schaffer says.
MysteryNet is continually adding to its offerings, with recent additions including "Learning With Mysteries," which includes lesson plans, and "Mysteries on TV," which offers listings, trivia and show profiles. And Thursday, Newfront announced it would develop a HarperCollins Mystery Corner on MysteryNet, which will offer the first chapters of books from HarperCollins' mystery authors.
Mind's Eye Fiction also offers some meaty mystery stories (along with tales from every other genre). To find out the ending, however, readers must pay -- anywhere from 22 to 77 cents for the mystery offerings.
A long-time mystery enthusiast, editor-in-chief Kenneth Jenks tells of strict criteria for selecting the stories he posts on his site. "I use the Snickers bar test. If, halfway through the story, I have a Snickers bar in my hand and decide I'd rather eat the Snickers bar than finish the story," the story doesn't get published on the site.
The site gets about 25,000 visitors each month, Mr. Jenks says, and about 400 of those purchase a story. Payment options abound, from tokens (available for sale at bookstores and conventions) to a subscription payable by check, cash, money order, credit card or 900 number. The site has a money-back guarantee, but in the two years since the site began operation, only two people have asked for a refund, Mr. Jenks says.
Kate Derie's ClueLass offers an extensive list of mystery-related sites, from the "Bloodstained Bookshelf" listing of new mystery books to the "Hanging Together" list of links for mystery writers and fans. She even includes links to real-life criminal research sites. "We're trying to create a real authoritative resource for individuals to do research in the field of detective fiction," says Ms. Derie, who is in the midst of writing her first book.
The most popular part of ClueLass, she says, is the Bloodstained Bookshelf. "It's generally over 300 books long and goes ... over a year in the future," Ms. Derie says.
Those who harbor dreams of becoming the next Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's famous heroes) can take a few tips from Sherlock's Detective Academy, a site run by 17-year-old Czar Ramsey, who says an English teacher piqued his interest in mysteries. On his site ("So, you want to become a detective, eh?"), one can determine his or her DQ -- detective quotient -- to find out if he or she is really cut out for the job.
A suspect was ultimately arrested in Crime Scene's Purity Knight case, but he later escaped from custody and was shot while on the run. The latest mystery: Who is responsible for the suspect's demise? The Yoknapatawpha County Law Enforcement division needs your help.
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