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"NOTHING," SAYS Johnson in the Idler, "is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment." Such consid- erations have generally put me off role-playing party games. But this was an invitation from Don and Susan Manley to a murder mystery.

Manley is a whizzo cruciverbalist producing such elegant cryptic clues as: a) 0014? (6,5); and b) minister admitting relationship (9) (Nothing to do with Robin Cook - think last government).

Murder mysteries are a chance to explore, to dress up, and - above all - to lie. It's a game in a box, in this case packaged as The Willing Dead (University Games, de luxe edition for eight). It's all very safe and circumscribed, though a friend writes to me of a role-playing game that overspilled its box, leading to the brandishing of lethal weapons. Things were not allowed to get so out of hand at the Manleys.

I played, nay was, for the evening, Charles Barnhill (a mother's boy). Manley (my butler in the game, rescued from a lunatic asylum) had fitted me up with a fictitious wife, who in reality (make of it what you will) was a psychoanalyst.

It wasn't easy distinguishing people from their personas. The first lines spoken in character took on a prominence that masked the real human being beneath, showing me on how few points we form our lasting impressions.

My "wife", for example, was witty and had an appreciation of double entendre that gave me to hope that with even more wine we might get along like a bawdy-house on fire. All (im)pure fantasy, of course. Join the dots - with only one dot to go on. If I'd first met her as herself and not as Mrs Barnhill, what then?

At the end of two or three hours of lying and cross-questioning, interrupted by enough good food and wine to make us as sober as judges, we had to decide. Who had done it? The butler? His wife? Or one of the children? Don Manley got it right. I got it wrong. Well, there's fiction for you.

The conversation cranked round to - Mandelson, as someone let slip I'd been to the same college. In fact, we were on the same staircase. What was he like? Did he deserve his fate? This wasn't judging cardboard characters in a game. I know Mandelson in a way I can never know Mrs Barnhill. The character on TV leaving home with a cake tin under his arm - that's someone I did know.

Pressed to a piece of Susan Manley's excellent fruitcake in a blatant example of cookbook journalism, I yielded up further insights. He had made a good president of the Junior Common Room. He was generally liked (unlike some other high-profile alumni I could mention). He felt strongly about causes, injustices and stuff, and I had teased him mercilessly for his idealism. He took it in good part. I never knew him do anything mean or spiteful. A rare sign.

But for me, in those days, he had had a more endearing quality: that of vanishing at weekends and returning from his mother's with a cake.

My mother was not a good cook by any stretch of the pastry. She could make a stew, but her heart wasn't in it. The results of her culinary excursions exemplified the difference between the eatable and the edible. (Suck on that one, Dr Johnson!)

Her cakes sank almost as did my heart when I saw her chipping them out of the oven with a coal hammer. Only later in life did I discover that the word "rock" in rock cakes owed more to their appearance than their usefulness in pelting garden marauders.

The Mandelcake, by contrast, was a great eye- (and mouth-) opener.

A recent photo of Mrs M standing by her son in the face of tabloid spite put me in mind of WC Fields's words: "A woman drove me to drink and I never had the courtesy to thank her." For drink read cake, and you have WC Maslanka's case in a nutshell.

If the pleasure dome had a stall with such cakes, I'd have booked my ticket yesterday as I drove past it, hopelessly lost.

Hint to Last Week's Millennium Puzzle: The magic square unravels easily once you see that the middle number is 667.

Point to Ponder

Collect all the cakes of yesteryear in one sweep of the rose of the future. Do not retrace any part of your path!

Cakes and comments welcomed at: maslanka@ puzzlemaster.co.uk; `Puzzle Panel' begins on Radio 4 at 1:30pm on Friday 22 January

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