Murder most foul is being committed on a private Amtrak train by members of a motley troupe of disreputable characters riding the rails to the scene of a brutal killing at a fictitious gambling casino in Atlantic City.
Royal Hotel owner Dan "the Duke" Carleton was shot down in his prime by a thief searching for Carleton's hidden fortune. On board the train are the Duke's grieving widow, Rosemary, shrouded in heavy black veils, and a shifty auctioneer, Sam "Slick" Sampson, who is selling the hotel's properties at auction.
Other sinister individuals with possible homicidal tendencies are: a rich, obstreperous Texan (Tex), a larcenous casino manager (Larry), a vengeful nightclub songbird (Marlena), a too-inquisitive reporter (Kathy) and a dizzy blond director of guest events (Laurie).
Shots ring out, people scream and a victim falls. An off-duty detective (Janie Jason) saves the day with the help of a number of "clues" and the quick wits of the passengers.
All this is part of the suspense and hilarity on board the Murder Mystery Express, a one-day train trip to Atlantic City, N.J., that entertains guests (going and returning) with an enactment of the light-hearted thriller, "The Deadly Auction."
The play was written and directed by Washington actress Barbara Fox, founder of Mystery on the Menu Productions. The cast is made up of professional actors from the Baltimore-Washington area.
Fox originated Mystery on the Menu Productions in 1986. To date she has produced more than 400 shows (using more than 14 of her original scripts) for the Murder Express route, touring circuit and special functions. She also produces a political thriller every Saturday night at the Georgetown Inn in Washington.
Starting point for the specially booked Amtrak car is Union Station in Washington. More passengers are picked up at New Carrolton and at Penn Station in Baltimore. The cost of the trip is $99 a person round trip and includes the full-length mystery, a continental breakfast and six hours of playtime in Atlantic City.
On a sunny Sunday recently, 60 guests (12 from Baltimore) boarded the Murder Mystery Express. They were shown to their seats by the gushing Laurie, who babbled on about the "terrible death" of "the Duke."
The crafty Slick is auctioning (in rather cavalier fashion) priceless objects from the Royal Hotel inventory. Guests bid on the imaginary list of items handed to them along with a written line of credit, good up to $5,000.
As the riders become involved in the auction, they zoom way over their credit limits to buy slot machines, oil paintings, show costumes, carpets (that Slim says "ain't been walked on since Duke died"), antique clocks, mirrors and a crystal chandelier.
A 10-foot diamond-studded crown, used as the hotel logo, sells for $33,000 in mock money over the angry protests of millionaire Tex.
The widow makes a desperate attempt to stop the auction but is fatally shot in the back. Detective Jason (she is known as J.J.) immediately takes charge, brandishing her gun and ordering everyone back to their seats.
Then the auctioneer discovers a number of coded letters in Duke's desk. A letter is also found next to the body of the slain woman. Copies of these papers (containing a series of scrambled letters) are given to the passengers, who pore over them attempting to break the codes (there are four) that will give them significant clues.
Passengers disembark at Atlantic City with a warning by J.J. treturn to the train by 6:45. A bus takes everyone to the Trump Plaza, where each guest gets a certificate worth $12.50 for the slot machines. Each person also receives a $5 certificate toward the purchase of a meal at one of the Plaza restaurants.
Six hours later everyone climbs back aboard the Amtrak car to witness the murder of the unfortunate reporter.
New sheets are handed out and guests are asked to write down the name (or names) of who they think "done it" and the motives. These are collected and the play continues to its surprising conclusion.
The actors have created long histories of their roles and can field any questions a player may ask them without breaking character.
The current cast features Barbara Fox as Laurie, Lynn Jane Foreman as Rosemary and Kathy, Ron Scheraga as Tex, Lee Fleming as Larry, Joan Bradfield as Marlena, Hans Bachman as Slick and Marci McDonald (Fox's daughter) as detective J.J.
The petite, blond Fox hopes eventually to establish a murder mystery theater in Baltimore. "I never dreamed this participatory theater form would be so successful," she says. "But everybody loves a mystery."
The next Murder Mystery Express trip to Atlantic City is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 9. Future dates are Jan. 20 and Feb. 24. Reservations may be made by calling Mystery on the Menu, (202) 333-6875.