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Originally published February 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 17, 2005 at 5:42 PM

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Body count rises among fans of mystery dinners, trains and weekends

A fire glowed discreetly beneath a Gothic mantelpiece. In one corner, barely visible, a pianist played something classic, quiet...

Special to The Seattle Times

A fire glowed discreetly beneath a Gothic mantelpiece. In one corner, barely visible, a pianist played something classic, quiet — an organic part of the Old World tapestries and rugs. Ancestral portraits loomed on walls, their flat eyes observing these new occupants, guests gathered for dinner.

Suddenly, a black-haired woman in a black dress appeared. She glanced around the small group and said, "You are about to witness a murder."

"Sweet!" That from some guy at one of the tables (clearly, new money) already primed to solve the evening's mystery.

Enter Dr. Franklin Stein, clad in a blood-streaked smock. We are here, he explained, for the reading of his mother's will. The doctor introduced his sidekick, a stooping gnome of unknown gender. "People told me not to hire Eyesore," mused Stein, patting the creature's lopsided back, "but I did anyway. Call it a hunch."

Groans, laughter and dinner was served, along with a fast-paced, funny murder mystery now showing at the Stimson-Green Mansion on Seattle's First Hill.

The scene of the crime


Seattle's Stimson-Green Mansion offers a classic setting for a murder mystery, and visitors can enjoy poking around its nooks and crannies before any bodies show up.

"When people visit, they wonder when the velvet ropes go up to keep them out of the rooms," says Gillian Faulkner Baumann, general manager, "but they're free to roam and look around."

Look for framed black-and-white photos in each room that show how it once looked when families lived there — surprisingly similar. Baumann, a native of Ireland, notes a shamrock theme that appears repeatedly throughout the house.

In the upstairs "bridal room," peek outside for a vintage automobile mirror attached to the windowsill. The Greens put it there so they could see visitors at the front door — an early-day "caller ID."

— Connie McDougall

Mystery dinners started last fall at the historic home, the latest in a growing list of Northwest venues that include mystery dinners, mystery trains and even annual mystery weekends, like the one to be staged later this month throughout the Whidbey Island town of Langley.

Mystery lovers, once confined to reading Dick Francis, attending theater productions of "The Mousetrap" or tuning in to the latest TV whodunit, seem to like it when fiction crosses into reality — for an evening, at least. These little melodramas are often corny, with a generous dollop of shtick, yet fans can't seem to get their fill.

Pre-killing cocktails

Come early to Stimson-Green for cocktails and a chance to tour the 1901 home built by Charles Stimson, an early Seattle timber baron, and later purchased by Joshua Green, another pioneer Puget Sound businessman. Incredibly, this fine old home was once slated for demolition. Now safe as a city landmark and listed with historic registries, the house found a perfect owner in Stimson's granddaughter, the late Priscilla (Patsy) Bullitt Collins. She started its thriving catering business, which helps pay for the home's considerable maintenance, and in 2001 gave the company and the mansion itself to the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.


JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The Invisible Man, played by Steve Jaquith, reads the will of the murdered owner of Mystery Mansion.

Sweep down the grand staircase and enter the library for dinner — unhurried, elegant, delicious. Between acts, actors wander from table to table, chatting with diners, angling for bribes — paper money provided to better pry clues from duplicitous characters.

Karen Murphy, from Renton, brought boyfriend Brad Farris to the "Murder Mystery Mansion" for his 50th birthday. She said he's on the shy side, so she wasn't sure he would like it, but she wanted to "expand his horizons." As it happened, Farris gave out bribes by the fistful, asking the characters pointed questions. Like so many murder-mystery newcomers, he got into it.

A not uncommon reaction, said Deanna Robinson, who with husband Wayne owns Pierce County's Thornewood Castle and hosts murder-mystery dinners. "It's always the shy people who end up really loving this experience," she said.

Other scenes of the crime

At Thornewood, guests become the characters, dressing up in costumes, receiving props and personal histories. "I remember one shy man, he was actually going to leave," said Deanna Robinson. "So I gave him a tape recorder and a hat with a press pass. I told him he didn't have to do anything but observe."

As the evening progressed, so did his enthusiasm. "He got so involved, he was one of the last to leave!"


JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Ezmerelda the Gypsy, played by Anastasia Israel, leads the dinner crowd through the halls of the Stimson-Green Mansion.

It may be easy to lose yourself in so dramatic a location. Thornewood, constructed in part with materials taken from a 400-year-old Elizabethan manor, was built between 1908 and 1911 by Chester Thorne, a founder of the Port of Tacoma. "We don't have to create a set for guests," Deanna Robinson said. "They're in one."

Ambience also plays a big role in the annual Murder Mystery Weekend on Whidbey Island in the little town of Langley. Loretta Martin, executive director of Langley South Whidbey Chamber of Commerce, said practically everyone gets involved. "Shopkeepers wear costumes, actors wander the streets. You can recognize actors because of their outlandish dress. Even the sheriff takes part."

That's Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley, also a published mystery novelist ("The Double Bluff" and "Silent Proof"). On Sunday evening, when the perpetrator is revealed, Martin said, "the sheriff does a book signing, then comes in full uniform and makes an arrest with handcuffs."


LAYNE FREEDLE

Detective Arnie Blank, played by Richard Daley, hoists his gun while rousting a "suspect" during a mystery dinner aboard the Spirit of Washington dinner train.

What started 21 years ago as a local winter's diversion now attracts people from afar, even England. "We also have a group of women who come every year," said Martin. "They call themselves 'The Hat Ladies' because they wear hats that reflect the mystery theme."

An appetite for whodunits

There's no denying the increasing popularity of murder mysteries, with or without a meal. "People just love to figure out a whodunit," said Marcus Bingham of Northwest Murder Mysteries, a theater company that performs all over the state, mostly for private parties. "Murder mysteries are the number one genre in books. Agatha Christie is the best-selling author behind the Bible," he said.

Under-employed actors like the genre, too. "It pays well, it's non-union and a lot of fun," Bingham said. "But it's a very difficult form of acting. You have a script but you're off script a lot and you're in the audience. They're looking right at you. There's no distance like on stage or behind a camera."

He grants that it's not for everyone. "Murder mystery is melodrama with vaudeville elements, sometimes slapstick. It has a broad appeal and may be for an older crowd because it's not a cheap ticket."

But for the price, you get a lot — food, entertainment, sometimes even transportation. Like the Orient Express, the Spirit of Washington offers murder with a meal. Running from Renton to Woodinville's Columbia Winery, the train rumbles by Lake Washington. Outside pretty views roll by while inside a mystery unfolds, occasionally resolved by the doughnut-chomping Detective Duncan Dunkin.

Whatever murder-mystery venue you choose — mansion, castle, train — here's a hint about who done it: Rarely, almost never, once in a great while, is it the butler.

If you go: Murder mysteries around the Northwest

Stimson-Green Mansion

Usually reserved for weddings and private parties, the historic Stimson-Green Mansion, 1204 Minor Ave. on Seattle's First Hill, opened to the public on a regular basis for the first time with its "Murder at Mystery Mansion" dinners starting last October. Doors open at 6:45 p.m., with cocktails at 7 p.m., giving guests plenty of time to explore the house and meet the actors who mingle in character. Upcoming dates include Feb. 24 and March 31.


JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Dr. Franklin Stein, a mad scientist played by Cliff Milloe, exchanges pleasantries with diners.

$85 per person includes dinner, all beverages, the murder mystery, plus parking. (The actual cost runs around $110 each with tax and an included 20 percent gratuity.) Pay by check only, at dinner or in advance. Reservations: www.ticketwindowonline.com or 206-325-6500. Or buy tickets directly from Stimson-Green Mansion: 206-624-0474 or www.stimsongreen.com.

Thornewood Castle

It's hard to beat an English-style manor for ambience. The castle is a private residence that offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations, and murder-mystery dinners are open to Thornewood guests and their friends, $100 per person. During spring and summer, one murder mystery per month is planned; the next is March 11. 253-584-4393 or www.thornewoodcastle.com. Located in Thornewood Estates in Lakewood, Pierce County. Visitors are asked to arrive only by appointment or reservation. Directions can be obtained with reservations, or check the Web site.


JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES

At Stimson-Green Mansion, Dr. Franklin Stein carries the body of Scarlet Cross, played by Mimi May, who apparently died with a smile on her face.

Langley Mystery Weekend

Langley on Whidbey Island hosts the granddaddy of local murder-mystery events. Its 21st Mystery Weekend takes over the whole town Feb. 26 and 27. While some visitors take part in both days, it's not necessary. Upon arrival, pick up a packet (clues, map, entry form: $2 for two days) at the Visitor & Information Center, 208 Anthes St. (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday).

Sleuths begin by reading "news" stories about the crime in a fictional local newspaper. A map then shows where to pick up printed clues to help solve the mystery. All the clue locations and the "scene of the crime" are within walking distance of the visitor center.

Around town, visitors may encounter characters and shopkeepers described in the mystery story. Any one of them might impart information that will help solve the mystery. However, that word-of-mouth might not be reliable; anyone could be the criminal, trying to throw you off their trail. When sleuths think they have figured out "who done it," they enter the solution on the official entry form and return it to the Visitor Center no later than 4 p.m. Sunday; participants with correct solutions will be entered in a drawing for prizes.

Langley is near the southern tip of Whidbey Island, reached from the mainland via the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry. More information: 360-221-6765 or langleychamb.whidbey.com.

The Victoria Clipper offers a Langley Mystery one-day excursion on Feb. 26. Round-trip from Seattle, $33 adults, $16 children. 800-888-2535 or www.victoriaclipper.com.

Spirit of Washington Murder Mystery Train

Intrigue on the tracks, from Renton to Woodinville and back. $79.99 covers train ride, dinner and mystery show. Murder-mystery trains depart at 6:30 p.m. and return at 9:45 p.m. every Friday and Saturday through April; check for availability. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and other celebrations can be incorporated into the mystery with early notice. The depot is at 625 S. Fourth St., Renton. 800-876-7245, 425-227-7245, or www.SpiritofWashingtonDinnerTrain.com.

Mount Hood Railroad

The Mount Hood Railroad in Hood River, Ore., runs murder-mystery dinner trains beginning in April and running through mid-December. $80. 110 Railroad Ave. 800-872-4661 or www.mthoodrr.com/events.html.

Mystery-theater companies

Northwest Murder Mysteries features local themes such as "The Man with the Golden Bean" (as in coffee bean). The group offers private shows but plans a public event for Mother's Day in Woodinville. Check the Web site for details. 206-783-4702 or www.nwmurder.com.

Murder for Sale produces mysteries at the Stimson-Green Mansion. It's a division of Wild Bill's Interactive Events. 425-272-0244, 800-330-4777 or www.wildbills.com.

It's A Mystery, a theatrical troupe performing on The Spirit of Washington dinner train, also takes it on the road, from parties in the home to hotel-based corporate gatherings. 425-652-2731 or www.itsamystery.com.

Murder Mistresses Dinner Theatre in Skagit County offers a variety of shows for private parties, and plans public performances in Conway within the year. 360-466-4086.

Connie McDougall is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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