We are in the middle of dinner and the wine is flowing, but it’s difficult concentrating on the ham hock terrine when the pretty but tipsy woman on our table is flirting with the handsome young man by her side. “You don’t mind, do you?” she brazenly asks his wife, who is sitting next to me. The wife quickly glances round the table before saying: “No, of course not,” offering up her terrified hubby like a lamb to the slaughter.
We’ve only just finished our cheese and biscuits when we hear a noise outside the dining room, followed by a spine-tingling shriek. Outside, we find a figure collapsed in a chair, blood oozing from a potentially fatal wound. While one guest comforts the victim, others take photographs, and the wife nods to her husband, opens her notebook and says: “I knew he’d be one of the first to go.”
Welcome to Friday night on a Joy Swift Original Murder Mystery Weekend. By the time the coffee has been cleared, the clues are already coming thick and fast. Joy, a devotee of Agatha Christie, organised her first weekends in 1981 while working for a small chain of hotels in Lancashire. They were so successful that she went on to create her own business, orchestrating dastardly deeds all over Britain, and in 2001, she was awarded an MBE for services to tourism.
Joy’s winning formula is to keep the weekends as realistic and contemporary as possible. Guests need to believe her characters are real people, with credible motives for behaving the way they do, right up until noon on Sunday, when the detective does his summing-up.
Joy hosts weekends exclusively with Principal Hayley Hotels at properties that wouldn’t look out of place in an Agatha Christie novel or TV programme.
Our weekend is held at Wotton House Hotel, in Dorking, Surrey, the former home of 17th century botanist John Evelyn. This prestigious house nestles in 13 acres of beautiful gardens and has a grotto, cave and tortoise house.
On the Saturday morning, over breakfast in the Tempus Restaurant, the actors feed us clues (or red herrings) with heated debates and loud conversations, so their indiscreet financial dealings and affairs of the heart can be overheard by anyone in the room. As each and every member of Joy’s cast is open to questions by the guests, notebooks are soon filling up.
Saturday’s lunch is followed by an afternoon of games – great for anyone whose sleuthing isn’t up to Miss Marple’s standard. As it’s a sunny day, one of the games is held outdoors, a paper chase, following clues around one of the gardens.
Then it’s back to serious detective work, because soon afterwards is a second murder and a blazing row, tears, tantrums, and two spectacular fights uncovering further clues and possible motives. After a cream tea, we head down to the Incident Room to have a look at the clues and grill any of the suspects who are still alive.
Then we get ready for a “Good To Be Bad” (famous villains) fancy dress party. Among the meringue wedding gowns, garish bridesmaid dresses and morning suits wander Cruella De Vil, Hannibal Lecter, OddJob and the Wicked Witch of the West. There’s another killing (of course) and the opportunity to murder a few dance moves in the disco after dinner. Attracting singles, couples, groups of friends and even hen parties, Joy’s murder weekends work because they get people talking to each other. Some regulars have been coming for years and happily share tips and advice with newcomers. For me, the best part is watching the actors. It’s organic, interactive theatre and it is tremendous fun to take part. One young couple have come for a rare weekend away together without the kids. It’s their first murder mystery event but they quickly turn into Surrey’s answer to Christie’s husband and wife sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.
Another woman has come with her family. She’s in her 80s, recovering from surgery and unable to travel abroad. She can’t walk very far, so it’s touching to watch how people take photos of the crime scenes for her and write down clues in the garden game, so she can join in with everything. Both the couple and the family have booked to come again.
Finally, Sunday’s denouement is an exciting affair, with the detective at last revealing whodunnit and why.
After the prize-giving, the cast come out of character for the first time, to talk about their roles and ones they have played in the past. Joy’s Original Murder Weekends have been described as “full of fun, laughter and dastardly deeds” – her website describes them as “addictive”.
So, once you get the bug for sleuthing, you will most probably go back for more.
• Joy Swift Original Murder Mystery Weekends start from £290 per person, with the price including a welcome cocktail, breakfast, one lunch, afternoon tea, two dinners and a full Murder Mystery programme. The weekend finishes with the detective’s summing up at 12.30pm on Sunday. Book your place by visiting www.murder.co.uk or calling 0151 924 1124.