I descend the staircase at the Ghost Rails Inn wearing my grandmother's mint green flapper dress, antique heels and a white beret with a sparkling brooch attached. In the living room, 13 others—men in pinstriped suits and bowlers, women in low-waisted dresses, cloche hats and long-stringed necklaces—graze on cheese and vegetable appetizers. One guy rests on a golf club looking like a character straight out of The Great Gatsby: knee-high argyle socks, a shockingly green sweater and a tweed flat cap. A woman donning a bobbed hairstyle and red flapper band across her forehead leans in to talk with him. The whole scene on a recent Saturday night seems like a 1920s-themed dream or a flashback to the Jazz Age—except for the glaring fact that more than half of the dapper crowd is drinking from bottles of Big Sky IPA.
Ghost Rails Inn owner Grace Doyle cooks dinner in the kitchen, while her husband and inn co-owner, Thom Garrett, stands near the door and takes in the evening's crowd with an amused smile. It's no wonder he's entertained by this group considering every one of us—all friends—have just traveled 30 miles west from Missoula to the small town of Alberton just to take part in an event scripted by Thom himself. It's a special package deal the bed and breakfast offers to people willing to engage in some theatrics: For $175 per couple, you get one night at the Inn, dinner, breakfast and...a murder.
Not a real murder, of course, but a murder mystery experience of the Agatha Christie kind—though with a much more comical storyline. Thom and Grace have been conducting murder mystery weekends ever since they bought and remodeled the inn on Railroad Avenue in April 2008. They take turns creating the scripts, consisting of various scandalous scenarios. One, titled "Romeo & Joliet Jake: A Tale of Two Car-Tossed Lovers," features 1960s mobsters vying for the role of head honcho—with fatal results. Another is based on an already existing murder mystery game called "Who Killed the Pig" about rednecks searching for a swine killer. And the couple has another one in the works, titled "Class of '89," with an all-female cast (though the women could be played by men) embroiled in murderous, hair-pulling situations.
My group's particular scenario was called "Death of a Railsman," in which an unscrupulous railroad baron has invited a group of unsavory strangers to dinner. A "priceless jewel" is displayed prominently in the room to tempt all the greedy guests. And everyone, from the get-go, has a motive for murdering the baron. Though each member of my group received our character name and description a few weeks in advance, we have very little information to go on during the actual crime.
Throughout the two-hour game, Thom hands each of us secret index cards (my first one says, "Stay close to Mrs. Wheezley"). The cards mostly either give a stage direction ("Pick up the key and go upstairs"), or reveal a line that should be spoken out loud to the group. Every once in a while, Thom passes out full-page scripts of dialogue that characters have to read aloud, and which offer essential clues to the rest of the guests about the motives of the characters. The identity of murderers and victims stays secret until the end, and not even the murderers and victims themselves realize their fate until given a card directing them to kill or be killed.
It's easy to screw up a murder mystery if you don't follow directions. Thom says that a recent group got so drunk after pre-murder barhopping that they couldn't get through the script. Other times, he says, people have tried to be too creative, going so off-script that the storyline no longer made any sense. Missing a little detail on the card, like the part that says, "Fall on the floor and die," or "Kill Mr. Lockley with a knife," can obviously alter the whole scenario and make the otherwise well-oiled murder mystery machine come to a screeching halt.
But if you want to make murder mystery weekend work, and still make it your own, here are a few tips: Dressing up in full costume is a must for setting the tone of the evening. Talking in accents—like a Yiddish or Austrian one—adds to the comedy. Playing a role in a manner that doesn't give too much away but makes people feel like they can't quite trust you, is encouraged. As Nurse Sara Sweetlace, for instance, I had to serve up the sort of sunny optimism surpassed only by Julie Andrews or Mary Tyler Moore, while still keeping my dirty secrets—and every character has dirty secrets—simmering just below the surface of my interactions.
With theater of this kind—participatory, unrehearsed, starring people with little or no theatrical background—you never know what's going to happen. And my group didn't do too poorly for a bunch of amateurs. Despite a few errors and chaotic moments, we managed to keep ourselves on track—though with a few expletives and improvised insults thrown into the mix for added color.
After a delicious meal—baked chicken, asparagus, cheesy potatoes and cheesecake—served throughout the evening, we sat around to figure out the mystery, which we did. Well, sort of—and only with help from Thom and Grace. Not everyone's a Hercule Poirot, after all. But at least we had style: our sleek dresses and smart hats were definitely, as they say, the cat's pajamas.
Find more information about Ghost Rails Inn at www.ghostrailsinn.com.