At nine in the morning, as we queue for check-in on one of these days out, the platform at Victoria station heaves with mainly middle-aged hand-holders celebrating landmark birthdays, anniversaries and untold other assignations. They make an interesting contrast with the sugar daddies and gaggles of corporate beanfeasters who make up the majority of the rest of the passengers. But it's sweet: couples showing their affection by laying out pounds 200 a head for what ultimately boils down to meals-on-wheels.
This particular trip is billed as a Murder Mystery Tour. Half a dozen actors mingle with the crowd, discombobulating those around them by chatting up total strangers and offering inappropriate quantities of information about themselves. A man in a colourful brocade waistcoat, who bears a significant resemblance to Simon Callow, bears down on me, gesticulating. "I don't trust her!" he cries, pressing a business card into the hand of the startled woman in front of me. "She's overdressed! Never trust a woman who's overdressed!" Huh. If this were New York, I'd probably be clocking him with my mace-gun, and yelling "Up yours, buddy!" by now. Instead, I meekly shuffle along the queue to check in.
Everything about the Orient Express is, indeed, Sybaritically luxurious - within, of course, the confines of it being a long, narrow corridor with seats either side. Service is superb, the environs profoundly soothing. We plump down in lavishly upholstered winged armchairs, and I start plotting how I'm going to sneak one off for my drawing-room.
This is a world of wood and brass, a place where every available surface has been covered in glorious marquetry, or hidden beneath a starched white tablecloth. Even the antimacassars are inoffensive, and, despite beautifully regulated ventilation, we are allowed to open and close the slidey windows at will.
The last time I travelled first class (someone else was paying), I went to Manchester on Virgin Rail. The air-conditioning had gone into reverse on a day that topped 80F, and mercilessly pumped steam on to our legs. By the time we arrived at Piccadilly, the entire first-class section looked like they'd been boiled alive. And that ticket cost just pounds 25 less than this one.
I settle in, patting my seat and feeling smug as commuters glance at us while running for the Chorley Express. I could live like this. My feelings of goodwill continue for at least three-quarters of an hour as I sink a couple of Bellinis and make much of a breakfast that just keeps on coming: a succession of nice men in white jackets bring fruit cocktails, croissants, Danish pastries, as the back gardens of south London potter past the window.
Leisurely, I think they'd call this train. I doubt it ever gets much above 40 miles an hour, which affords one ample time to enjoy the concrete flamingos of Crawley, the Welcome signs of East Croydon, the barbecues of Burgess Hill. Yes, I think, I could really live like this. And then the Bellini hits me and I remember why I avoid drinking before the sun goes over the yard-arm - because of the almost instantaneous narcotic effect.
Blinking blearily, I also realise that I don't feel comfortable on a train without something to read. But this is the Orient Express, and you never see photos of women buried in books among all this splendour. I struggle, instead, once the joys of the London hinterland have begun to pall - these are the same views, after all, that one sees on the Gatwick Express, only more lingering - to make conversation and look elegant, as everyone around me is doing.
The doors at the rear end of Ibis, our carriage, burst open, and the actors return in their 1930s costumes, chatting everyone up, telling them about the "auction" of a top-secret "revolutionary device" that is to take place in the Royal Pavilion, scattering bits of paper covered in secret code about them. All the usual suspects are represented: the Russian countess and her Cossack bodyguard, the dodgy Frenchman, the Chandler- spouting American broad, the Foreign Office toff, the gentleman of fortune, plus, of course, the professor responsible for the invention and his much younger wife.
Stifling a yawn, I decide that the prof is wearing so much make-up that he must be the one for the chop. I drink a couple more cups of coffee to keep me awake and gaze longingly at a series of scrubby estuaries as we cross them. Hove, 11.30am: we board a coach for Brighton.
"Is this the bus for Brighton?" a nice old lady in the seat in front asks nervously. "I hope so." "Oh, good." She settles back. "Only, it said Murder Mystery on the front, and we thought, we don't know anything about any murder." Lord only knows what she's made of all these impertinent luvvies who've been chatting her up. I only hope she won't get too much of a shock when the dastardly deed takes place. Which it duly does, among the gorgeous furbelows in the Pavilion's music room.
After the auction has gone off without a hitch, someone throws open the trunk purported to contain the mystery invention, and bingo! the professor's body is revealed. Coo, ooh, says everyone, particularly the group of Japanese tourists who have inadvertently got in among us, who probably think to this day that this was some sort of re-enactment of a historical event, and we all rush to get back on the coach.
The nice old ladies seem to have disappeared. Perhaps the actors should be rounded up and questioned for real. Back on the train, we settle down for leek and potato soup, halibut with mustard-nut butter, new potatoes and sugar-snap peas, and apricot tart: nice food, on a par with Qantas business class, no better, but more elegantly served with ladles, back- to-back spoons and napkin-flourishes: those Aussie trolley-dollies never did master the joys of silver service.
After a couple of glasses of wine, somnolence begins to settle back on my shoulders. The return trip to London is due to take a full three-and- a-half hours. A nice snooze, I think, and a sticky: that would be perfect. But no! Those pesky actors are back, with a change of cast in the form of a youthful police inspector who begs us all for our input on solving the case and hands out wads of evidence. Oh, God, I think - I've solved the case already. You've faked your own death and cunningly sneaked back on the train disguised as a youthful police inspector.
Surely everyone else will spot it, too: I can still see traces of make- up around your hairline. But, obligingly, I sit forward and join my team- mates as we think up questions to trip up these old-hand improvisers. They're not having any of it, know every trick in the book to keep us guessing. But the truth is, I don't really want to guess. During my Agatha Christie phase, I always used to read the end first, then go through the book looking to see if there really were any clues, or if she'd cheated, which, most of the time, she had. I gave up Agatha Christie at 12 years old.
The codes and ciphers confuse my already addled brain and have me reaching for the Rennies. By four, I understand why they have laid on this entertainment. The Orient Express is wonderfully comfortable, but the truth is that train travel is only really interesting when you're going somewhere new, and can watch unfamiliar landscapes pass the window. Somehow, the sun- loungers of Streatham don't really qualify.
Twitching, I fix an interested grin to my face as the troupe work their way up the carriage revealing the dastardly truth. Another team wins a bottle of champagne and generously share it out, but the thought of another drink has me drooping. An anniversary couple receives a bound copy of Murder on the Orient Express. They look pleased, but bemused. By the time we reach Victoria, I am scarcely able to make it up the platform.
This has certainly been an experience. Next time, I'm going to find a sugar daddy to take me all the way to Venice. I fall into a cab, stumble into the flat, call my date for the evening and blow her out. And then I collapse on to the bed and sink into a blissful coma, punctuated only by fitful dreams of trains passing through tunnels and lingering views of the dahlias of Dorking.
The Orient Express: brunch and tea trips pounds 99; five-course `moveable feasts' from pounds 165; day-trips to various UK destinations and social events from pounds 175; combination trip with Concorde round the Bay of Biscay pounds 850; millennium night pounds 650; eclipse (2 nights) from pounds 635; city breaks from pounds 400. Call 0171-805 5100
Still Dying to Know Whodunnit?
THERE IS a surprisingly large number of companies specialising in murder-mystery weekends round the UK, most of which can tailor events to fit your weirdest fantasies, provided that your party comprises enough "guests".
London Music Agency (0585 423393), for example, runs murder-mystery weekends in hotels around the London area. An evening of entertainment at a hotel in Kensington costs around pounds 50 per head, although this can change depending on the numbers booking. The price includes dinner and a disco, and sooner or later one of the guests is likely to collapse in a pool of blood, gasping for air. The script can be tailored to your own circumstances. I am told that in corporate events, bosses are usually referred to as "bosses" to ensure that nobody forgets who they work for in real life.
Fight for life
As an example of the extent to which companies are willing to go to accommodate the interests of their guests, Murder Mystery Mayhem (0181-959 6579) recently entertained a group of Walkers executives to a murder mystery - based on a certain space-age movie. Given that Walkers at the time held the license of the Star Wars copyright for their advertising campaign, the temptation to organise a Jedi-themed event was too strong a force to resist. The plot was simple: different managers/Jedi would compete to become the "chosen one". However, one of them would in fact, be working for the "dark side" and would bump off several of his colleagues over the course of the evening. Eventually the murderer was revealed as none other than Darth Vader (they should have guessed who was responsible from the start, really). To avoid legal wrangles with Lucasfilm, Murder Mystery Mayhem can't replicate this evening exactly, but will organise something similar, with different character names. The price again depends on the size of the group.
A dead heat?
Murder by Design (01934 416441) recently organised the following tragedy: the plot unravelled in an art deco Odeon cinema and centred around two rival actresses bickering as to who would win a much-coveted Oscar. Not surprisingly their rivals in the nominations soon become the victims of particularly nasty accidents. As to who eventually won, the guests never found out, as the 1930s equivalent of Billy Crystal met an equally grisly end just before he opened the golden envelope. This type of evening can be arranged for groups of 30 or more. The cost per person varies depending on your location in the UK.
If you would like to leave this world in a grandiose setting, then several companies will arrange a weekend or an evening in a castle or a stately home. For example, Complete Liaison Event Management (01892 852819) can book rooms at Leeds Castle, and say that as far as stately homes go, "the list is endless". But style doesn't come cheap: to hire out Blenheim Palace in Oxford will cost you pounds 7,000, but cheaper alternatives are available.
The joke's on you
If the idea of latent violence and sinister machinations leaves you cold, then perhaps an evening with Custom Theatrics (0171-404 4232) would be more your cup of tea. This company's group of actors includes stand-up comedians who are ready to stitch up unsuspecting members of your group. For pounds 44 you get a three-course silver-service meal as well as a disco.
Dominic LongReuse content