Murder in Langley

Every February, someone gets murdered in Langley, WA.

And—every February– the good people of this Whidbey Island village put out the call for help in solving the murder.

They’ve been doing this for 33 years. According to mayor Tim Callison, the Langley Murder Mystery Weekend is the largest community-based murder mystery project in the United States.

On February 25-26, over 2,500 people registered to become amateur detectives and solve the crime.

This year, The Admiral (“Are you going to keep calling me that? And if so, do I get a hat?”) and I decided to sail up to the Port of South Whidbey, agreeably situated on the shore below Langley, and join them. Our good friends John and Kerstin Hilton came up from Portland to explore the weekend with us.

The event is scripted by one person and organized by many. While the Chamber of Commerce sponsors the event, and virtually all of the shops and many of the organizations in the village participate, there are also 34 players from the community who agree to take on roles for the weekend. It’s not small crime, let’s put it that way.

We had made a reservation at the marina in anticipation of the crowd, but found that the cruising crowd hasn’t quite caught on. There was plenty of available space. Once we settled our moorage, the Dockmaster handed us a clue in advance.

In order to play, one registers at the Chamber of Commerce. We had been encouraged to do so online “to avoid the crowds” and ensure that we could get one of the limited supply of custom printed T-shirts or hoodies. As we approached the Chamber, we found that the “will call” queue was longer and slower than the one for initial purchase. We took delivery of our materials (The “Langley Gazette,” a four-page newspaper detailing the crime stories, and a game guide map and ballot), and headed off for the fun.

“The fun,” as it turned out would come later. The first thing one had to do was navigate the crowds going in and out of small shops that were handing out clues—39 in all, including the one we snagged in advance on our way out of the marina. There was also a crime site that needed to be visited, and a Coroner’s Report, delivered live on Saturday noontime. and available later as a printed statement from “Murder Mystery HQ,” a/k/a the Chamber of Commerce.

It was a very busy Saturday. In addition to the need to negotiate the crowds lining up for purchases, lunch, and/or clues, one navigates around the 34 characters in the crime, who make themselves available for interviews. Eavesdropping on or participating in that activity is part of the fun (“How did you feel, Al, when you heard that your girlfriend Natalie was seen kissing your boss?”).

The fun appeared over drinks and dinner on our boat Saturday night, as we pooled our information and theories, debunked one another’s opinions, and formed new ideas.

We found out later, from one local, that the murder mystery always includes or paraphrases some actual events from Langley’s recent history. A theme in this years’ mystery for instance, pitted a “save the Sasquatch” organization against several hunters who were seeking licenses to kill or capture the beast. According to our source, this was referencing an actual controversy about how to handle a lone elk that had found its way onto Whidbey, and was heedlessly going about ruining people’s fences and gardens as it presumably sought its putative herd.

Our friends said their goodbyes after dinner, and handed us their filled-in ballots. We stayed for the second day of play and the final reveal on Sunday night.

When we woke Sunday morning, we decided that we had NOT solved the crime Saturday night, and needed more information. We made a list of characters to interview, and set about doing so after breakfast.

Sunday has the advantage of being less crowded: it’s easier to get to the shops, and the characters are more accessible for interviewing. One interview clinched it for us. We filled in our ballots and turned them in, with the better part of the day ahead for shopping and enjoying Langley hospitality.

Late Sunday afternoon, we walked up to the Langley Middle School, where we found a packed auditorium awaiting the results. Mayor Callison– unaccountably dressed in white evening wear– emceed the evening, announcing that the unofficial count of 2,800 registrants made this the largest group of murder mystery guests that Langley had hosted so far. From the requested show of hands, it was clear that people return to this event every year, and that there are a good number of newcomers every year.

The red curtain opened to reveal the full cast of characters. I.B Fuzz, the “Chief of Police” who was billed as the shortest ex-Texas Ranger, took the podium, and announced the solution. (“After ruling out our local suspects, it was pretty clear that one of our visitors did it, so…”) It turned out that our solution had been one of the 171 correct answers.

There are prizes for getting it right, of course: Every correct answer is eligible for a prize draw. After the first three prizes are awarded, the rest of the prizes are drawn from all of the ballots, so there are consolation prizes as well.

We didn’t win a prize, so we gave ourselves one: dinner at Prima Bistro. The small award-wining restaurant was awash with families and couples enjoying themselves and the French-inspired comfort food. The mayor and his wife were among the diners, so we complimented them on a job well-done. When he heard that we were boaters, he urged: “Come back when it’s warm and sunny.” There was nothing to gain by pointing out that, as full-time cruisers, the weather wasn’t as important as the passage and the destination.

When we returned to our boat, we were the only denizens of the outer dock, and a cold wind had picked up. On Monday, we set sail for home, secure in the knowledge that we had solved the crime and scored a great weekend with friends. Langley is safe.

For now.