One of the goals I had when I wrote about my plans for the blog last year were to do more Five to Try posts. I think I have only managed two or three since then so given that I’m a few weeks away from my blogiversary I thought it would be a good idea to try and sneak at least one more in before then.
The topic for today’s list are mysteries set in and around hotels. I think that the hotel can be a really intriguing setting for a mystery because they are such a transient space. At any time a hotel will be filled with a jumble of people from different walks of life, occasionally connected but often apparent strangers to each other, and so everyone is sort of finding out about each other as they are forced to live alongside one another for a brief period of time.
For my selections today I have limited myself to actual brick and mortar hotels rather than cruise ships or rented properties on isolated, storm-ridden islands. Those settings are just as interesting and probably deserve their own list in time.
As I always like to say, I am not going to pretend that these are the five best mysteries set in or around hotels. They’re just the five that struck me as interesting or represented different, interesting ways to utilize that setting.
The Great Hotel Murder by Vincent Starrett
I feel completely unimaginative selecting this book with the word hotel in its title but I think it is a great place to start because of what it illustrates about the hotel as a space.
One morning a visitor at the Hotel Granada is worried that Dr. Trample, a man he had arranged a meeting with, has not appeared and when he does not respond to knocks at his door, the friend persuades the management to unlock it for them. Inside they find a dead man who has overdosed on morphine though no syringe can be found in the rooms. The bigger surprise though is that the man inside the rooms is not Dr. Trample but another guest who had checked into the hotel under a false name.
What I like about the way this story uses the hotel setting is the way it plays with the idea that everyone is essentially a stranger to the hotel and so identities can be manufactured. Another story that I contemplated including that speaks to the same idea would be Carr’s To Wake the Dead which begins with a man pretending to be a guest at a hotel in order to secure a free breakfast. I picked The Great Hotel Murder however because I felt it makes better use of the hotel as a space and tells an entertaining story that blends mystery and adventure together well.
The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne
Generally guests choose to stay at a hotel but in The Crime at the Noah’s Ark a group of travelers all brought together when they are stranded at a country inn because of heavy snow.
This is therefore a story that perfectly illustrates that a hotel is a setting where people who do not know one another and might otherwise never mix can be forced to come together. Here we see that some characters embrace it, making the best of the situation, while others behave inappropriately or antisocially.
This story concerns the sighting of a prowler stalking the corridors of the inn at night and the theft of a valuable emerald girdle from one of the rooms. The guests quickly come to assume they know who the culprit likely is but when they break into that person’s room they find them bludgeoned to death.
I found this to be a fun, adventurous tale but I think what stands out most strongly to me is the large cast of colorful characters, several of whom are more complex than they initially seem.
The Final Days of Abbot Montrose by Sven Elvestad
I read this book rather recently and it was actually the novel which inspired me to pick this as a topic. You see while the novel’s hotel sequence takes place quite late in the book, Elvestad’s depiction of the seedy locale with its shady but colorful clientele was one of the highlights of that novel for me.
That hotel is called The Gilded Peacock and it is the location for one of the book’s more thrilling sequences where a suspect under guard seems to vanish from the hotel room they are being kept in.
My favorite moments in this sequence come during the preparation for it when our two detectives speak with the proprietor of the hotel who arranges for them to come in under cover. They are warned that the guests there are quite unusual and so he provides each of them with a rather ludicrous persona they will need to adopt in order to seem inconspicuous.
This is not only a source of some comedy, it helps establish The Gilded Peacock’s somewhat odd atmosphere that the events that follow will only build upon.
As for the book overall, I felt it was quite a well-clued puzzle mystery that is told in an adventurous style that reminded me of Doyle’s Holmes stories.
Murder à la Richelieu by Anita Blackmon
While most hotels are visited for only a short period with an ever-changing clientele there is, of course, another type: the residential hotel. These buildings operate somewhat differently and so while they share some features (a group of professional staff characters, private lockable spaces and shared amenities), they also have some other distinctive ones.
Murder à la Richelieu takes place at a hotel that has been nicknamed the Old Ladies Home by the locals. Almost everyone at the hotel has been there for years and so while they have their own unique history, they feel that they know each other really well. It is, however, still a hotel and some characters’ pasts may not be quite as they have represented.
The story is an excellent one, packed with incident, and it feels surprisingly hardboiled and grisly, boasting a high body count. Perhaps my favorite element of the novel is its sleuth, Adelaide, who is an aging spinster widely regarded as a ‘battle-axe’ and ‘nosy old maid’ by those around her.
Speak of the Devil by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
My final selection is perhaps my favorite on this list. It was certainly the first title that came to mind when I started sketching this out.
Speak of the Devil begins with a woman traveling to Cuba to start a new life for herself when she meets the charming Mr. Fernandez who offers her a chance to be the host at his new hotel on the island of Riquezas.
Shortly after Miss Peterson arrives she is approached by her predecessor who claims she has just killed a man in self-defense. She is puzzled by Mr. Fernandez’s reluctance to contact the police about the matter and things take an even stranger turn when they find the body. And then there are the strange rumors among the locals saying that the Devil has been sighted walking the hotel’s halls.
There is a lot I love about this story from the way it turns the usual psychological suspense thriller on its head by having a rational, clear-headed character surrounded by this chaotic sense of dread experienced by everyone else.
To me though one of its greatest successes is its presentation of its hotel setting. Part of what makes this supposedly grand building feel so claustrophobic and threatening is that so much of it remains empty, making it plausible that something or someone malevolent may really be stalking those hallways.
So, there you have my suggestion for Five Hotel Mysteries to Try.
What are some of your favorite mysteries that are set in or around hotels?