The murder mystery

Inventing the murder mystery weekend has not only brought Joy Swift business success and a reputation as 'the best' but also an MBE.

Murder and mayhem have a habit of following Joy Swift around. The Lancashire businesswoman is always at the centre of some drama or other ... that inevitably ends in bloodshed.

Anyone else would have had the police on her tail by now, but remarkably Joy has not only escaped conviction but been rewarded with an MBE in spite of the corpses that dog her every step.

For Joy, a proud daughter of the Red Rose county, despite bureaucrats' best efforts to reclassify her home of Blundellsands, near Southport, as Merseyside, is the inventor of the original Murder Weekend.

And since she spawned her brainchild back in 1981 she has taken the concept all over the UK and the world, and has been duly recognised for services to the UK's tourism industry.

For around 40 weekends each year she is busy hosting and taking part in murder mysteries, in addition to coming up with three new plots a year – though this year (thanks to a new book plus the Egyptian Murder on the Nile trips and Italian Murder in the Mountains) she has developed eight ingenious murder stories for guests to solve.

"I love writing the plots and in fact have now written more than Agatha Christie who inspired me in the first place," Joy admits.

"They have given me a very interesting life which has meant that I've had 152 affairs and 12 illegitimate children, shot 237 people and stabbed well over 500 (for which I have been brought to book), and tragically I have died 724 times - but I'm here to tell the tale."

When she devised the idea she was providing the public relations and marketing for the Prince of Wales Hotel in Southport and had just organised a Percy Thrower weekend for guests.

"I was looking after 50 'blue rinses' talking about plants, and I thought 'this is all very well but 20-somethings aren't interested in this and we need to give them something'.

"I was driving to work the next day when I heard a radio report about a gangland murder at the Plaza Hotel in New York and I thought 'imagine if that happened in our hotel, how would we deal with the bad publicity?'. But then I thought that for the people in the hotel it would have been very exciting - being interviewed by the police as witnesses and so on.

"I had a 'light-bulb moment' and when I got to the Prince of Wales I suggested some sort of event where we could 'stage' a murder and get guests to work out whodunnit. I was pooh-poohed but the manager admitted it might get some publicity and said it was down to me to organise, if anything was held.

"I spent six months getting it together while doing my other work. I knew some people from amateur dramatics and they agreed to help out. I knew that for it to be a success, it had to be realistic."

She held the first one in October 1981. On the Monday it was in the local papers. By the Tuesday the national press was clamouring to get interviews. After it was screened on the BBC's Holiday programme some months later she decided to go it alone, setting up her own company.

Since then, many 'cheap copies', as Joy puts it, have sprung up but she and the murder fans maintain that hers are not only the original, but the best.

Original Murder Weekends begin with a champagne welcome reception (at which guests are often startled by a fellow 'guest' suddenly dropping dead) and continue until the detective inspector concludes his or her summing-up. A police incident room is set up in the hotel, where the policeman displays vital clues which point to the suspect's motives which can be checked by the guest sleuths at any time.

This year saw the first Murder in the Mountains in the Italian medieval village of Triora, in the Maritime Alps north of Nice. Two have been held so far. A third is scheduled for September.

When guests arrive they pretend to be members of a fictitious dating website. Unfortunately, several members of the group have murder rather than amore in mind. As the body count rises, guests interrogate suspects looking for the vital pieces of evidence to unmask the killer(s). Actors remain in character for the entire break, reacting realistically to the guests undergoing questioning and no doubt lying about past misdeeds.

Joy's plots blend fact and fiction so seamlessly that bystanders often become ensnared in the intricate web of murder and deceit.

On a Murder In The Mountains break in May, when a bloodcurdling scream echoed across the valley (courtesy of a guest stumbling upon the body of a murder victim), villagers ran down the hillside and besieged hotel reception with offers of assistance.

Thankfully, the carabinieri in Triora, who work closely with Joy during the Murder in the Mountains breaks, were able to allay the fears of concerned residents who telephoned them for help!