I’m an inch below a flute of buck’s fizz when a reporter approaches a buffet table, grabbing her bloodied neck. “She had her throat cut!” plays a thirty year old dressed as Jessica Rabbit. A young man in a lime green cycling suit chuckles, “Murder, murder, ahahaha!” and he claps his hands. Immediately, 86 crime fans gather to examine our now-dead companion, who has collapsed, gaping, into a hotel dining chair. Zoë, a 39-year-old nurse from Woking, takes her notebook. “Hmm, cut throat,” she says. “Is anybody here trying to shut her up?“
There is something quintessentially British about taking comfort in a grisly murder. A few years ago, crime and thriller sales surpassed those of all other fiction genres, and our appetite for stylized gore increased in the pandemic years, with crime literature posting a 19% increase in sales since 2019 to 2020. New subgenres of escapism have grown in popularity, including “cozy crime” (polite games, often set in a fictional past) and “armchair destination” mysteries staged in attractive travel destinations, such as the bestseller Lucy Foley’s The Paris Apartment and The White Lotus, an HBO comedy-mystery series set in dysfunctional fictional resort towns in Hawaii and Sicily.
“There’s something familiar about these books that we seek out in uncertain times,” says Phoebe Morgan, who commissions crime for publisher HarperCollins. “We can follow the clues and piece together a solution and that makes us feel satisfied and a little more relaxed.”
Alongside this wave of literary crime has come a resurgence of murder mystery weekends. They include super-luxury offerings such as Ariodante’s Mystery of the Blue Train, an enthralling Agatha Christie-style murder mystery staged on the current Orient-Express and featuring a five-course lunch; or, for those who find Ariodante’s £19,980 price tag a peu tropthere are young Irish mystery writer Fiona Sherlock’s bespoke mystery packs, available on Etsy from around £25. huge customer demand”), and weekends from established purveyors, like Joy Swift’s Murder Mystery Weekends, are seeing healthy booking growth as they revamp their bloody getaways for the 2020s.
Today I’m at a hotel in rural Berkshire for an event called Pack of World Warriors (POWW), a whodunit written by Swift herself. I’m dressed in shades of pea for the Friday “green” theme of a climate crisis fundraiser hosted by a wanton heiress named Scarlett Hubble, and my fellow murder-mystery-goers are a motley crew. Next to me, a woman in an elegant floral cocktail dress, a group of young deer, and a serious couple in their twenties wearing the green uniforms of the Green Bay Packers football team.
Swift is a veteran of the genre, now in her fifth decade of staging weekend murder mysteries, but her storylines have moved with the times. The storylines feature social commentary on issues such as climate collapse and the misdeeds of dastardly billionaires. Another popular Swift mystery script from 2022, Crazy About the 70s (Cats), acknowledges echoes between our present time and the inflation-ridden 1970s in a storyline centered around a woman who founds a rock music festival . It features songs from hits of the era, such as Tiger Feet by Mud.
Over the course of a weekend break, attendees can expect three murders, a series of fisticuffs, a sexual interlude (with guests often trampling a bedroom to catch the actors in flagrant) and clues with secret codes. “Regulars rave about those,” says Swift.
At dinner I share a table with Rama, a surgeon; Zoë, who’s at her 20th Swift’s Event; and Heather and Neil, 50-year-olds from Essex, who booked their first murder mystery when they couldn’t travel to their favorite hangouts during the Covid years. “We caught the bug,” Neil says with a wink. “Although we have no idea what’s going on most of the time bleeding!”
As a nervous apprentice waiter wanders around with a plate of vegan feta strudel, a woman’s scream pierces the dining room. A dismembered toe was handed to shady billionaire’s wife Briony Melrose, mounted in an iPhone box. “It’s a big toe and it’s bloody,” Zoë reports cheerfully, as she returns to our table for bakewell cake after investigating. Our young waiter pales.
The following afternoon, after a second body has been added to the count, I sit sipping tea on the sunny terrace of the hotel. Overhead, a flock of starlings shoot arabesques in the winter sky and the distant sput-sput of golf balls can be heard.
Zoë and her friend Angela, a mystery newbie, are studying the plot with Heather and Neil. “Do you think the reporter he had something about Toby Hubble?” Angelo says. “I was expecting another murder by now,” Heather reflects. “Although it was great to have that dead toe, wasn’t it?”
Before dinner, we gather again in a police operations room off the hotel lobby, where clues are being mounted on police scoreboards throughout the weekend: emails, replayed texts and news clippings. Here I meet Murder Mystery Mates, a social media group of crime enthusiasts who organize to attend events together. They tell me they’ll be staying up late into the night for a “breakdown session,” where committed crime enthusiasts square off before Sunday’s epilogue.
“We’ve been to the cheaper contestants — we call them ‘pub murder mysteries’ — and the storylines are outlandish or the actors slip out of character,” says Paula. “So we prefer Joy’s.”
Zoë will also be staying up late chewing on the plot. “She IS the beautiful thing about murder mysteries,” she says. “Whatever you are doing at home, you are totally engrossed from the moment you arrive until the moment you leave.”
I arrive at midnight and partially solve the mystery, with the help of a couple from Norwich who assiduously write down the key characters in the plot and their alibis. However, the real joy of Joy’s event, for me, was how she 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 the murder mystery in all the silliness inherent in the genre.
It’s no surprise to Swift that whodunits are back. “I just want my guests to let their guard down, make friends and feel like kids again,” she says. “And that never goes out of style.”
The trip was provided by Joy Swift’s Murder Mystery Weekends which takes place regularly at locations around England (next is 30 Dec-1 Jan at Cranage Estate, Holmes Chapel, Cheshire). From £350 per person for two nights in a double room, all meals and limited drinks included