The bulging shelves of crime fiction in bookshops and the constant stream of crime dramas on TV bears witness to the public’s fascination with crime and murder. So, it’s no surprise that the number of murder mystery events held nationwide is booming. Angela Youngman details the events that have become extremely popular with groups of all kinds, including corporate businesses, hen parties and the general public

AFTER_DARK_AC Priesthouse

The idea of murder mystery weekends began in 1981 when Joy Swift started the first weekend in Southport. The results were spectacular, leading to the creation of a new tourism activity both in the UK and overseas. 

Joy Swift’s original murder mystery weekends are held in hotels from Fridays to Sundays. The mystery begins at the opening cocktail reception and continues across various sessions held over the next two days.

The dead body in one of our performances aboard a Severn Valley Railway steam train actress Chelsi Walker

The dead body in one of our performances aboard a Severn Valley Railway steam train actress Chelsi Walker

Three or more murders are committed over the weekend and numerous secrets begin to emerge, as participants question the characters and discuss their findings with other participants. Actors stay in character throughout the weekend, allowing participants to question them; even if they encounter them in local shops, the surrounding area and the within the hotel.

Sleuthing continues unabated until a ‘detective’ sums up the events on the Sunday. Trophies are given out to those who have come to the right conclusion. Every four months a new plot is released, ensuring that repeat visits take place. Over 100,000 people have attended these events and demand has increased steadily.

Since then, numerous companies have set up their own versions, working with hotels and leisure attractions to run both private and public events.

The range of events involves all sectors of the market including high end, luxury hotels and private houses. Depending on the company involved, it can vary from a jokey murder dinner to a trail around a beach, a ghostly murder or a long weekend with numerous clues and detailed interviews with characters.

Locations include country houses, National Trust buildings, steam trains, castles and even windmills. Sessions vary in length from weekends to evening entertainment, meals or the length of a train ride.

The Severn Valley Railway and Dartmouth Steam Railway are among the many companies that frequently operate murder mystery dining trains.  Typical of these railway events is Murder Rattle and Roll on the Bluebell Railway, which involves a 1950s style murder amid the annual village hop.

LEWIS MADDOX PHOTOGRAPHY

Murder mystery sessions tend to be immersive, but it is up to the participants whether they’d like to take part or just sit back and watch the entertainment.  During a murder mystery event, a group of actors perform, giving clues at different stages of the event from which participants can begin to work out a solution. These clues may be verbal, official reports, diagrams, photographs or maps.

It is up to the participants to discover the identity of the murderer (or murderers), the motive and possibly the method used. A detective is on hand to try and help participants. The denouement comes at the end of the session when the correct solution is provided.  Subject matter is extremely varied with classic country house mysteries, James Bond style experiences, Sherlock Holmes, World War Two, Lords and Ladies, Science Fiction, historical events, as well as TV and film themes, such as St Trinian’s and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Strathdon Hotel Nottingham runs murder mystery events involving characters from ‘Allo, ‘Allo and Fawlty Towers.
Murder by Appointment is one of the largest murder mystery companies in the UK and Europe. Founded in 2000, it performs in a wide range of venues.

LEWIS MADDOX PHOTOGRAPHYDerek Bagnall of Murder by Appointment says, “Demand is very high.  We have a full calendar of events booked throughout this year and into next year.  We perform in a wide range of venues including pubs, hotels, clubs, corporate venues, universities and cruise liners.  We cover every type of plot available. Themes based on popular TV programmes and feature films are always in demand, but we have done countless original storylines based upon the customer’s wishes. I personally write every script specifically for the customer – every one being original and unique.”

Simon Deighton of the Murder Mystery Company comments, “We typically organise murder mystery events for corporate groups and other organisations.

Murder mystery events are incredibly versatile and can provide a number of benefits for all sorts of groups. Our most popular format is a murder mystery evening taking place over a three-course meal, typically at a hotel, country house or other unique private space. It provides an intriguing icebreaker, encourages participants to think on their feet, helps build relationships between colleagues and can also stimulate problem solving and creative thinking. They are always a huge amount of fun, making a truly memorable experience that people will be talking about for a long time to come.”

In the North West, lovehistory.co.uk holds murder mystery events for groups between 30 to 400 people. Larger events are supported by audiovisual facilities and are real theatrical events. Venues include Croxteth Hall and Country Park, St Georges Hall Liverpool, Britannia Hotels, The Floral Pavilion and Liverpool Cricket Club. Themes vary considerably and include jazz and rockabilly scenarios complete with singers.

Judy McLean from lovehistory says, “We run everything from real crime, historical events, Victorian themes and musicals. For hotels, the average group size is 120 and caters to coach bookings. Usually people want something a little different to just a meal or just a show and this provides both.  All guests must be over 18 and there is a good market for these events.”

The Poster for our Jeeves and Murder Show (new for 2016)

The Poster for our Jeeves and Murder Show (new for 2016)

Classic Agatha Christie style mysteries are always popular.  Many companies utilise the style, such as Miss Mapletree’s Country House Murder Mysteries, but only one company has actually received a license from the Agatha Christie estate. After Dark Murder Mystery Events has an exclusive Thomas and Tuppence mystery dinner theatre experience with the Hand Picked Hotels group.  A versatile production, it is held in period rooms catering for between 30 to 60 people.

Smoke and Mirrors has adopted a slightly different approach. It offers unique ‘haunted house’ mystery sessions involving the use of special effects to capture the attention of participants. These can be very authentic – a bloody ‘death’ at a public event once attracted the attention of two off duty police officers.

Stories are linked into locations. For example, a murder mystery event at Wilton Windmill involves hanging down a 40ft drop, through four trap doors, while the ghostly supernatural thriller Back with a Vengeance requires the use of a swimming pool, and the climax of another plot involves a vampire on the roof of a four-storey building being shot by an M16 agent dressed up as a priest.

Alexander Rain from Smoke and Mirrors organises both public and private group sessions, such as Malice in Wonderland at the Tollgate Inn, Wiltshire or a Christmas Special at the Royal Oak Cheltenham. New plots are constantly being developed, with new offerings such as Death in Holy Waters (a waterborne Halloween extravaganza on the Thames), Fairway to Heaven set in a luxury golf club and Turn for the Nurse – a raunchy farce set in a private hospital.

The annual International Agatha Christie Festival held in Devon frequently includes murder mystery events. This year, there is an all day, drop in event at Oddicombe Beach.

Entitled Man Overboard, it is suitable for all ages and takes the form of a treasure hunt, where participants have to hunt for clues and interview people, such as a scientist, in order to solve the mystery. The event is enlivened by the sounds of jazz musicians playing period music. There will also be a special event entitled A Dark Night At The Abbey set at Torre Abbey, which is the former home of the Carey family. It takes the form of a promenade around the Abbey, meeting actors and discovering aspects of the plot.

Later in the evening, participants sit down for a dinner and seek to solve the mystery. There are even mystery events for children during the Festival involving author Dan Metcalfe, who will be running trails at Torre Abbey and Torquay Museum, featuring his child detective Lottie Lipton.