On the Beat with West Chester’s New Solve-A-Crime Adventure
Story by Kelly Murray
Sleuthound’s Mark Stokes wants everyone to know this: it’s Sleuthound, with one h. “Sometimes people can’t find us online because they type in Sleuthhound with two h’s, but it’s just one,” Stokes laughed. This tiny typographical mix-up is a subtle twist of irony for West Chester’s newest interactive outdoor mystery experience, which has been seeing record attendance since it opened for business this past May.
With lots of word-of-mouth referrals and a feature profile broadcast on Fox29’s Good Day Philadelphia, Sleuthound has quickly become a popular group activity for those looking for something to do outside in the borough. From girls’ nights to couples’ nights to just trying out something new nights, people have been coming out to see just what Sleuthound is all about. And it’s no surprise, as the family-friendly experience offers a creative avenue for attendees to solve an interactive mystery against the beautiful backdrop of downtown West Chester. In short, people are having no problem discovering Sleuthound—and they are loving every minute of it.
The self-described solve-a-crime adventure currently operates exclusively in West Chester and invites its guests to enjoy an evening of case-cracking entertainment aided by live actors right in the borough. Attendees can expect to go on a hunt for clues that are unlocked by rounds of trivia, karaoke, and interactive challenges among the borough’s bars and food establishments. That’s right, gumshoes. Your best karaoke performance could very well set you on a path to crack the mystery and earn borough-wide notoriety—or at the very least, bragging rights among your teammates.
Currently, Sleuthound offers two outdoor events: Stuck in the 80’s and Escape Room. Both of these events are open to all ages, and they each run approximately 90 minutes. These walkabout adventures are self-directed, so they could take as much or as little time as needed—it really just depends on the team’s sleuthing skills. “Sometimes I get calls at 1:30 in morning from Kildare’s from teams who are still solving the mystery,” said Stokes, letting out a chuckle. “So, yeah, some people just really have a great time with it.”
While it’s safe to suspect those detectives miiiight have been enjoying a few adult beverages along their beat, not every adventure has to go into the early hours of the morning. Stokes said that the fastest time to solve the mystery so far has been one hour and 23 minutes—certainly an impressive record for solving a crime that involves quite a bit of detective work—on foot—throughout town. So, what’s the story with these crime-centered quests? Let’s crack the clues and find out.
Since May, Stuck in the 80’s has taken place on Saturdays and involves solving a dastardly crime against some beloved 80’s iconic personalities. We won’t give them away, but rest assured when you learn who they are, we imagine you’ll be dead set on discovering just what happened and solving the crime. Attendees of Stuck in the 80’s are even encouraged to dress up in their best 80’s fashion. That’s right, you can leave the suit and tie and trench coat at home; styles with neon, fishnets, ripped jeans, and big hair are all welcomed.
Before starting the adventure, teams meet with a character named Inspector Dumas who will deputize each team and give the proper credentials to start the mystery-solving evening. Participants then follow the clues to interview suspects and receive discounts, free food and drinks along the way at the “portable offices” located around the borough. Oh, and that 1:30am call that Stokes mentioned? That’s part of the experience. Sleuthound offers its guests a hotline to call if they get stuck on a clue and need assistance. The Sleuthound team will give additional clues to help teams stay on track (although we suggest using the hotline before last call). Once the crime is solved and the result is called in, the team has completed their mission. It’s a truly entertaining way to jump back in time and solve a fun-filled mystery—no DeLorean required.
As for Sleuthound’s Escape Room, it occurs on Fridays and is the only outdoor escape room activity in the tri-state region. It’s a non-linear scavenger hunt designed to get teams to follow clues that will lead them to a successful “escape” out of the borough. (We know, we know—who would want to leave the borough? But you can return after you win to celebrate your victory.) Teams are paired with a guide and can even bring their very own sleuth hound or sleuth pup along for the adventure, as pets are welcome to join the pursuit.
Speaking of returning to the borough, Stokes himself is one of the many who have made their way back to Chester County after moving away. Originally a native of Chestnut Hill, Stokes manages the day-to-day operations for Sleuthound and has been an integral part of creating the experience. It was his love for helping others that led to the development of this new outdoor entertainment venture in the first place—and its one-of-a-kind name.
“When I was younger, my father had harness horses. I grew up in Chestnut Hill, but we would come down to West Chester a lot and go to Farmer in the Del and Jimmy John’s. I have so many memories of West Chester from back in the day,” explained Stokes, who would go on to move to Philadelphia and spend 25 years living in the city before returning permanently to Chester County in 2005. But it’s clear that his admiration for West Chester and its deep sense of community never left. One of the inspirations behind creating Sleuthound was rooted in helping the local small businesses who were hit hard in the pandemic.
“The idea [with Sleuthound] was to get people out of the house. But I’ve always been a business owner, and I just know the hardships of running your own business, and [the pandemic] was something that hit everybody out of the blue. I had friends in the borough with businesses who were struggling a little. Sleuthound is a way to get people out of the house, do something fun, and connect with the small businesses in town.”
I had friends in the borough with businesses who were struggling a little. Sleuthound is a way to get people out of the house, do something fun, and connect with the small businesses in town.-Mark Stokes
It was also that same business sense and passion for people that helped coin the Sleuthound name (with only one h!). As a college student, Stokes spent his summers bartending for many years in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, creating fond memories akin to his time spent in West Chester. Stokes explains that it was one of the factors behind the name: the SH in Sleuthound is a nod to the SH in Stone Harbor—a clever homage expertly hidden in plain sight.
Covering the areas of town along Gay and High Streets, Sleuthound has partnered with many establishments in the borough to bring its slew of interactive games and challenges to its crime-solving teams. But this isn’t just an excuse to go bar hopping. Sleuthound also partners with pizza shops and restaurants like The Couch Tomato Cafe and Meatball U., which has been a major resource for the burgeoning independent entertainment business. The restaurant serves as a starting point for teams and offers free drinks, meatball sandwiches, and discount cards to attendees.
The pricing structure is also intentionally wallet friendly, as Sleuthound wants to keep their prices low. Tickets are $15 per person, and children under 12 are permitted free of charge—but they must be accompanied by an adult to carry out their sleuthing. Sleuthound also proudly offers a 33% discount to all current members of the military, veterans, law enforcement officers, and firefighters. All monetary transactions are handled over Venmo for an easy, no-fuss experience. What’s more, Sleuthound will even customize the storylines of their Solve-A-Crime Adventures to give groups a unique experience. So, if there’s a birthday in the group or maybe it’s a bachelorette outing, Sleuthound will ask questions to get some extra tidbits of information and create a storyline specifically geared for that group. It’s a customized crime adventure on the turn of a dime.
And it’s this spirit of camaraderie and community connection that really drives Sleuthound. Along with the local businesses with whom they partner, Sleuthound also employs a number of actors and writers who collaborate to create the fun storylines and interactivity of the experience. Sleuthound works with West Chester University theater groups and the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center to source their actors. From the adventure locations to those bringing the mystery to life, the Sleuthound experience is truly a West Chester original.
And the fun is just beginning. After summer winds down, Sleuthound will begin rolling out more programs including fall and holiday themed experiences. Their fall program begins on September 17th and will include seasonally appropriate escapades like a Ghost Tour, Cemetery Walk, and a Haunted Whodunit. Like their summer events, the fall program will offer a way for its guests to get outside and experience West Chester through a journey back in time—although these journeys promise a bit more late-night scares rather than Back to the Future vibes. During these al fresco events, guests will walk among historic West Chester streets and surrounding areas that are allegedly haunted by borough residents of days past, and even American and British soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of Brandywine during the Revolutionary War.
Crafting Sleuthound’s fall program of scary strolls and cemetery capers has come with its own memorable discoveries. While researching and developing the Cemetery Walk event, Stokes learned a fascinating story about 19th-century burial practices in West Chester. We did some sleuthing of our own, and indeed, the origins of one of West Chester’s nearby cemeteries comes with an intriguing beginning.
In 1851, graveyards in town were closed, and residents were no longer allowed to bury loved ones within the borough limits. In response, some congregations took matters into their own hands. After a government approval, land was purchased just north of the borough, and the congregations created a new cemetery. They dug up their members’ existing graves, extracted the coffins, and moved them there. By 1854, the new cemetery was open, and the bodies were fully relocated. And ever since the relocation, there have been a significant number of paranormal occurrences reported in said cemetery.
This discovery has only further enriched Stokes’ excitement for the upcoming Cemetery Walks. We won’t reveal the cemetery in question, though. We’ll leave that one a secret until Sleuthound officially announces its fall program and folks can witness the spooks themselves during one of the late-night walks. For those who may be spooked by the possibility of spotting a ghost, the Cemetery Walks will also include outdoor movie nights. Nothing like the silver screen to brighten up the surroundings, even if those surroundings are gravestones.
So, aside from the mystery themes and the locations shrouded in secrecy, one thing is very clear: Sleuthound was created to bring people together. “The goal is to bring a great experience to the public. People have already gone to events and sent messages to us asking, ‘What’s coming up next?’” says Stokes. “We listen to the community and the public, and we encourage our guests to get a hold of us to make anything happen. We plan to continue to grow and to serve the community.”
It sounds like pretty soon, Sleuthound may be growing its own horizons beyond the West Chester borough limits. With plans to expand and opportunities to franchise, Sleuthound intends to offer outdoor-themed adventures to nearby boroughs like Kennett Square, Media, Malvern, and Wayne. The themed entertainment business is also available to do private parties and corporate events and is open to designing experiences around new themes like classic television and comedy shows.
But it’s safe to say that when people ask about its beginnings, Sleuthound’s story can always be traced back to where it all began, right here in West Chester.
Ticket information and event details can be found at www.sleuthound.com. Those Interested in becoming an actor, writer, or guide with Sleuthound are encouraged to email their inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.