The plot thickens: why murder mystery weekends are on the rise

I’m an inch down a flute of buck’s fizz when a journalist careers into a buffet table, clasping her bloodied neck. “She’s had her throat slit!” peals a thirtysomething dressed as Jessica Rabbit. A young man in a lime-green cycling skinsuit giggles: “Murder, murder, ahahaha!” and claps his hands. Immediately, 86 crime fans gather to survey our now-dead companion, who has collapsed, mouth agape, on a hotel dining chair. Zoë, a 39-year-old nurse from Woking, reaches for her notebook. “Hmm, slashed throat,” she says. “Is someone here trying to silence her?

There is something distinctively British about deriving comfort from a grisly murder. A few years ago, sales of mysteries and thrillers overtook those of all other genres of fiction, and our appetite for stylised gore increased in the pandemic years, with crime literature seeing a 19% increase in sales from 2019 to 2020. New escapist subgenres have grown in popularity, including “cosy crime” (polite romps, often set in an imagined past) and “armchair destination” mysteries staged in attractive travel destinations, such as Lucy Foley’s bestselling The Paris Apartment and The White Lotus, an HBO comedy-mystery series set in dysfunctional fictional holiday resorts in Hawaii and Sicily.

“There’s something familiar in these books that we reach for in uncertain times,” says Phoebe Morgan, who commissions crime for publisher HarperCollins. “We can follow the clues and piece together a solution and this leaves us feeling satisfied, and a little bit calmer.”

Alongside this literary crime wave has come a revival of murder mystery weekends. They include super-luxury offerings such as Ariodante’s Mystery of the Blue Train, an immersive Agatha Christie-style murder mystery staged on the actual Orient-Express and featuring a five-course lunch; or, for those who find Ariodante’s £19,980 price tag un peu trop, there’s young Irish crime writer Fiona Sherlock’s bespoke murder mystery packages, available on Etsy from about £25. London riverboat operator City Cruises has launched murder mystery evenings on the Thames (“in response to huge customer demand”), and weekend breaks by established providers, such as Joy Swift’s Murder Mystery weekends, are seeing healthy growth in bookings as they restyle their bloodstained getaways for the 2020s.

Today I’m at a hotel in rural Berkshire for an event called Pack of World Warriors (POWW), a mystery written by Swift herself. I am dressed in shades of pea for Friday’s “green” theme of a climate crisis fundraiser organised by an unhinged heiress named Scarlett Hubble, and my fellow murder-mystery-goers are a varied bunch. Next to me, there’s a woman in an elegant floral cocktail dress, a group of young stags and an earnest twentysomething couple wearing the green kit of American football team the Green Bay Packers.

Swift is a veteran of the genre, now on her fifth decade of staging weekend murder mysteries, but her plots have moved with the times. Storylines feature social commentary on issues such as climate collapse and the wrongdoings of dastardly billionaires. Another popular 2022 Swift mystery script, Crazy About the 70s (Cats), acknowledges the echoes between our present time and the inflation-racked 1970s in a plot that centres on a woman founding a rock music festival. It features singalongs to feelgood hits of the era, such as Mud’s Tiger Feet.

Over the course of a weekend break, participants can expect three murders, a peppering of fisticuffs, a sexual interlude (with guests often tramping through a bedroom to catch actors in flagrante) and clues featuring secret codes. “Regulars thrill for those,” Swift says.

At dinner I share a table with Rama, a surgeon; Zoë, who is at her 20th Swift event; and Heather and Neil, fiftysomethings from Essex, who booked their first murder mystery when they couldn’t travel to their favoured sunshine haunts in the Covid years. “We caught the bug,” Neil says with a wink. “Though we have no idea what is going on most of the bleeding time!”

As a nervous trainee waiter hovers with a plate of vegan feta strudel, a woman’s scream tears through the dining room. A dismembered toe has been delivered to shady billionaire’s wife Briony Melrose, mounted in an iPhone box. “It’s a big toe and it’s a bloody one,” Zoë reports happily, as she returns to our table for bakewell torte after investigating. Our young waiter blanches.

The following afternoon, with a second body having been added to the tally, I sit sipping tea on the sun-trap hotel terrace. Above, a flock of starlings cast arabesques in the wintry skies and we can hear the distant sput-sput of golf balls.

Zoë and her friend Angela, a murder mystery first-timer, are chewing over the plot with Heather and Neil. “Do you think the journalist had something on Toby Hubble?” Angela says. “I was expecting another murder by now,” Heather muses. “Though it was great to get that dead toe, wasn’t it?”

Before dinner, we reconvene in a police incident room off the hotel foyer, where clues are mounted on police boards throughout the weekend: emails, reproduced texts and news cuttings. Here I meet Murder Mystery Mates, a social media group of crime enthusiasts who arrange to attend events together. They tell me they will be staying up into the small hours for a “solving session”, when the most committed crime enthusiasts compare notes before Sunday’s denouement.

“We’ve been to the cheaper competitors – ‘pub murder mysteries’ we call them – and the plots are shonky or the actors slip out of character,” says Paula. “So we prefer Joy’s.”

Zoë will also stay up late to chew over the plot. “It’s the lovely thing about murder mysteries,” she says. “Whatever you’ve got going on at home, you’re totally absorbed from the moment you arrive until the moment you leave.”

I make it to midnight and partly solve the mystery, with the help of a couple from Norwich who keep assiduous notes on the key plot figures and their alibis. However, the real joy of Joy’s event, for me, was the way it created a parallel universe – a “golden bubble” as she calls it – in which we are encouraged to dance, break into song and get into the spirit of murder mystery in all the genre’s inherent silliness.

It’s no surprise to Swift that murder mysteries are back. “I just want my guests to drop their guard, make friends and feel like kids again,” she says. “And that never goes out of fashion.”

The trip was provided by Joy Swift’s Murder Mystery Weekends, which run regularly at locations around England (the next one is 30 Dec-1 Jan at Cranage Estate, Holmes Chapel, Cheshire). From £350pp for two nights in a double room, all meals and limited drinks included