Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication.
In search of the perfect gift? Read more of Slate’s holiday gift guides here.
Last year, in the depths of my family’s long, dark, Covid winter, I was always on the lookout for new indoor activities for my family of four. Since my daughters are a young ten and a mature fourteen, it was a challenge. There were only so many nights (okay very, very many nights) that we could spend hours playing games on our new Switch.
On a whim, I bought a book that popped up as a recommendation on a website where I’d done some holiday shopping: Murder Most Puzzling: 20 Mysterious Cases to Solve. One night, when no one could agree whether to play Mario Cart or tennis, I pulled out the book to some groans and complaints, but I prevailed! We sat down as a family, cracked it open, and so began the first of many nights to come where our main activity was, as my 10-year-old likes to say, “doing a murder.”
The book is heavily illustrated—every image (or set of images) represents a new case—with a short passage introducing each murder. Most of the mysteries feature a detective (Medea Thorne is her name) who’s called to a crime scene, has a look around, and immediately figures out who the culprit it. Readers are then left to do the same, using the pictures as their guide. As we embarked on our first mystery, one of us read the passage aloud, and then together we pored over the illustrations accompanying the murder, looking for clues. This was a bit of a challenge, since we only had one book; some neck-craning and tugging ensued. But everyone was super engaged (having completely shaken off their initial resistance to this activity) and determined to solve the mystery. To my delight, we did another murder…and then another…and just like that, “doing murders” became part of our nighttime routine at least once a week. We loved that we could squeeze them in after dinner or over lunch, and it wasn’t an enormous commitment, and they served as a wonderful break from jigsaw puzzles and board games.
While a few puzzles are more elaborate, like one that requires you to complete a crossword to solve the mystery, most were the right level of challenge for our family. And the book achieved exactly what I’d hoped: We worked as a team—talking it out, sharing theories, uncovering clues together. I liked watching the pride my daughters felt when their theories proved to be true, and I especially loved watching them collaborate. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we’d be stumped and would have to flip to a section at the back that gives you a clue…and sometimes, if we were still stuck, we designated someone to look at the answer and nudge us in the right direction.
The activity was so successful, both girls expressed interest in other similar books that might take a different approach. I selected Sleuth & Solve: 20+ Mind-Twisting Mysteries—the more cartoonish illustrations seemed like they might go over really well with my daughters who occasionally struggled with Murder Most Puzzling’s lavish style.
And that proved to be true! We tackled the book one lazy Saturday morning, and we solved all the puzzles before the weekend was up; my daughters, frankly, couldn’t put Sleuth & Solve down. These challenges are more like brainteasers and logic games and everyone enjoyed the variety. And while some of the puzzles rated “difficult” seemed easy to us, a bunch were the right level of challenging. When we had company that weekend, my younger daughter pulled the book out and dared my friend to do three of the hardest ones then marveled when he got them all; she also showed the book to a friend as part of a playdate. So I immediately ordered another book in the series—this one with a “Spooky” theme—and there is a “History” one I will be gifting my youngest for Christmas.
My birthday fell in the midst of all this murdering, so my daughters, excited by our new family hobby, decided to gift me with Sherlock Holmes Escape Room Puzzles. It’s absolutely gorgeous—packed full of cool images and graphics—and is designed to mimic multi-stage case-cracking escape rooms (something I also enjoy!). We’ve decided to wait to start it—it’s a bit more sophisticated than our crew can currently manage. In the meantime, I’m buying the Sherlock book for some families on my gift list to play with their older kids over the holidays. Until we’re a bit more mature, my family will continue to solve our Medea Thorne murders. Now where is the Switch anyway?