A case of murder most amusing

Who's in the frame? The not-so-merry widow, her creepy son and the grumpy old man with something to hide. Simon Redfern heads to Surrey for some amateur sleuthing

"I was awakened by a tugging at my shoulder. It was Holmes. The candle in his hand shone upon his eager, stooping face, and told me at a glance that something was amiss. 'Come, Watson, come!' he cried. 'The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!' "

Frimley Hall Hotel, deep in the bosky climes of Surrey, bears a passing resemblance to the "low, widespread" country house to which Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion proceeded post-haste after the untimely demise of Sir Eustace Brackenstall in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Abbey Grange. The difference for me and my own faithful companion, as we motored down to Camberley on a Friday afternoon, was that we knew murder had not yet been committed. But we knew it would be; Frimley Hall was hosting one of Joy Swift's Original Murder Weekends, a name which supplied a clue that even dunderhead Watson could not have missed.

Quite why 90 or so seemingly normal people would pay to spend a weekend cooped up in a hotel attempting to solve a staged crime was what we were on our way to find out. I had a vague idea of the drill: at some point on Friday evening, during the cocktail reception or the dinner that followed, murder most foul - or at least distinctly unpleasant - would be committed. The murderee would be an actor, as would a number of others planted among the guests and the police summoned to the scene.

On Saturday morning, a "police incident room" would be set up, with clues on display. During the course of the weekend, the murders would pile up, and more and more evidence would be exhibited. It would be up to us and our fellow sleuths to deduce who the guilty party or parties were.

Now I'm not much of a joiner-in by nature; my idea of organised holiday activity is a waiter bringing me poolside drinks at regular intervals. So I wasn't convinced that this would be my kind of thing. But, not for the first time in my life, I was utterly wrong; from Friday cocktails onwards, Tiffany and I were plunged into a maelstrom of activity, and quickly became hooked on the idea of bringing the guilty to book.

I was also wrong about our fellow sleuths; I had imagined they would predominantly be couples in their fifties and sixties with time on their hands, the sort of people you might find on a Mediterranean cruise. Not a bit of it; the crowd mingling for pre-dinner drinks was as varied as you could get, everyone from families with teenagers and groups of friends in their twenties to a couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary.

And friendly, too. I was immediately engaged in conversation by a woman who claimed to be a Daily Mirror feature writer, but she seemed curiously vague when I mentioned several friends of mine at the paper. Switching into full investigatory mode, I decided there was something fishy here, but I never got a chance to pursue my enquiries with her, because during the course of dinner there was a sudden commotion, and she slumped, dare I say theatrically, to the floor before she had even chosen her dessert: murder number one.

Now I'm sworn to secrecy as to the twists and turns of the plot and the solution, in case I spoil the fun for future participants. Suffice to say that the build-up of evidence in the incident room was impressively detailed: letters, photographs, police reports, newspaper cuttings - every i was dotted, every t crossed.

All this was the handiwork of Joy Swift, who invented the concept in a flash of inspiration one morning in 1981. "I was working in marketing and sales for a hotel group in Southport at the time," she said, "and driving to work one morning I heard a report on the radio of a shooting in a hotel in the States. I wondered what it would have been like if it had happened in my hotel, and a light bulb suddenly went on above my head; why not stage a murder as an entertainment?

"I organised the first weekend just to see how it would go, and took the Monday off afterwards to get my voice back. When I came in on the Tuesday there was a pile of messages on my desk from national newspapers, even The New York Times. One paper did a full-page piece on the idea, and it just took off from there."

Joy, who still cheerleads the proceedings at every weekend, is rightly proud of her inspiration, which earned her an MBE for services to tourism in 2001, and is philosophical about the fact that her idea has been copied relentlessly. "I was invited to stage a couple of weekends in New York, and after the first one, word had obviously got around - the second one was full, but the crowd was mostly tour operators and hotel managers."

It's difficult to imagine anyone running the show with quite Joy's brio, though. Determined that no one will suffer a dull moment, she fills every waking hour with activities, compering the proceeding like a Girl Guide leader on speed. Now this is just what I had dreaded. With a view to making my escape during the day, before arriving I had done some homework on Interesting Things To Do In Camberley, which are not as difficult to find as you might think, at least if you like flora (Wisley Gardens), fauna (Birdworld) or historic homes (Jane Austen's, down the road at Chawton).

I never got to see one of them. I nearly got out on Saturday afternoon, but instead found myself strangely drawn to playing the Party Song Game - name the original artist and date, then the cover artist and date, of a particular hit. ("It's Raining Men": The Weather Girls, 1982; Geri Halliwell, 2001. See, it's easy).

All the while the body count, and the evidence, mounted, as the half-dozen actors threw themselves, in one or two cases literally, into the proceedings. We rushed from drama to drama as word spread, and then to the incident room. It was all very chummy, as people pooled knowledge and theories rather than keeping their homework to themselves, and quite addictive, as some of the guests testified.

For I discovered there is such a thing as a Murder Mystery junkie; Joy devises three new plots a year, and many of the guests were serial attenders. "This is my 27th Weekend," confided one woman, who can't have been a day over 30. "I didn't get it right the first six times, but after that I got better."

Which did not inspire me with much confidence as Tiffany and I madly filled in our Whodunnit? form on Sunday morning. We had to hand it in before all was revealed at noon, and not only did we have to specify who committed the murders, we had to detail their motive and the clues that led us to our conclusion. Even Tiffany, a smart-as-a-whip lawyer from LA I had hand-picked for the assignment, confessed to struggling. So I am boastful enough to report that while we didn't win, we were close enough to become one of the six runners-up, and the proud recipients of a Super Sleuth certificate and dagger-shaped letter-opener.

This called for a celebration, preferably involving alcohol. And it was in the hotel bar that the final twist in The Tale of Frimley Hall was revealed. The actors were enjoying a farewell drink of their own, and in chatting to the murderer-in-chief we learned that most of the actors were former customers. "Joy gets to know the regulars, and she talent-spots some of them, like me, and asks them if they'd like to join the cast," he explained. "It's fun, and as it's only for the weekend, it doesn't interfere with my normal job."

And what was that, I wondered.

"Oh, I'm a journalist ..."

Joy Swift's Original Murder Weekends (0870-400 8995; www.murder.co.uk; www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk) take place throughout the year at Macdonald hotels around the country. The weekend package costs from £205 per person, including two nights' dinner, bed and breakfast, lunch on Saturday and a cocktail reception.

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