The motive is puzzling pleasure

January 08, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

If you're looking for a different kind of fun but aren't sure what to do, here's a clue: Sleuth.

Interactive murder mystery parties - whether staged informally at home or during weekend getaways - give amateur detectives a chance to flex their intellectual muscles, enter the mysterious worlds of their favorite crime fiction writers, dress up in period garb, and gather with friends old and new for an unforgettable experience, said veteran mystery game writer and player Steve Hatherley, founder of on the Web.

"Interactive murder mystery games are a chance to leave the drudge of everyday life behind, dress up and become someone completely different," he said. "The parties give people the chance to be (like famous fictional detectives) Inspector Morse, or Miss Marple or Poirot."

Some murder mystery events - including Murder Mystery Weekends at Allenberry Resort and Playhouse in Boiling Springs, Pa. - feature professional actors portraying suspects, detectives and victims while guests try to help solve the crime. Others, including the murder mystery weekends that Pittsburgh-based Deadly Affairs hosts at the Hilltop House Hotel in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., cast guests in deadly dramas organized and facilitated by professional mystery gamers. Then there are murder mystery games written solely for novice players, such as those Hatherley has been crafting for the past decade.


Those interactive events generally work this way:

  • Each guest receives his or her character's background information at or prior to the start of the game. Murderers know who they are up front, and organizers usually have the option of knowing the identity of the culprit. Hatherley recommends that people hosting the games refrain from looking at the solution. It makes the game more fun for hosts, he said.

  • In addition to solving the crime, players usually have other goals. For example, they might want to get as much money as they can, blackmail other players, or recover documents that might incriminate them.

    "The wide variety of goals makes each interactive game very different," Hatherley said. "The guests decide themselves how to approach and achieve their goals. They won't all be successful because many goals will be mutually exclusive, but it does mean that the outcome for each character is largely in their own hands."

  • A prize usually is awarded to the amateur sleuth who guesses the perpetrator of the crime; players who meet their goals also might win prizes, Hatherley said.

Kam Gillespie, owner of Haley Farm Bed & Breakfast in Oakland, Md., has participated in murder mysteries staged by professional actors and those in which she and other guests portrayed the mystery's characters. She prefers the latter.

"For me it was like being in an Agatha Christie movie, and I love being able to guess who did it before every one else. I drive people crazy at movies as I can usually guess the ending before the punch line," Gillespie said. "It's also a great opportunity to be a ham and overact. Instead of being a voyeur, you are actually in the drama."

To prepare for murder mystery weekends at her inn, Gillespie purchases and modifies a script, changing the main plot and adding some new characters. She sends character parts to murder mystery guests about a month before they arrive at the inn, she said.

"I like to create an atmosphere like 'Murder on the Orient Express,'" Gillespie said.

That's what Bob Crawford's been doing for the past 14 years at Allenberry Resort and Playhouse. If you've attended a Murder Mystery Weekend at Allenberry, you probably know Crawford as Boiling Springs Police Chief Lester Gunter, a bumbling investigator who always manages - somehow - to finger the culprits and set the record straight. In addition to acting in Allenberry's popular murder mysteries, Crawford, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., writes them.

His newest whodunit script, "The Mystery of The Cash Cow," casts Allenberry guests as participants in a telethon scheduled to fund research on a mystical and elusive creature called a Whowow. But as the entertaining telethon continues, it becomes clear that the Whowow isn't the only endangered animal. Professional actors mingle incognito with guests as they arrive for the weekend, throughout which the plot twists and thickens as secrets, suspects - and corpses - continue to crop up.

"We go through quite a bit of stage blood over the weekend," Crawford said.

Guests are charged with discovering the clues that point to the identity of the killer and motive for the crime. Copious note-taking is common, Crawford said.

Solving the crime isn't. Only about 20 percent of guests crack the cases, said Al Hasis of Deadly Affairs.

Interactive murder mysteries "are far more convoluted than (the board game) Clue ever was," he said. "It's not easily discerned who has set up this chain of events."

"Motive usually stumps people," Crawford added.

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