Five to Try: Hotel Mysteries

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?


23 thoughts on “Five to Try: Hotel Mysteries

  1. There’s Hugh Pentecost’s (Judson Phillip) long running series of books featuring Hotel Manager of The Beaumont, Pierre Chambrun.
    The series is quite uneven in quality and some are very thriller-ish, but it definitely meets your category.

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  2. I love hotel-bound mysteries, though I don’t remember coming across very many. At Bertrams Hotel comes to mind. As does The Labours of Hercules. But there is an undeniable and strong attraction to seedy and sinister goings-on beneath the facade of prestige and excessive propriety of a luxury hotel circa 1920s/1930s.

    And thinking about it, the hotel in GAD is basically the country house setting, only supersized. Except where in a hotel you generally find people who are ostensibly strangers to one another, in a country house you typically get a mix of estranged family members and loose acquaintances. The inhabitants of both still have their private quarters, and who they really are/what they get up to behind their closed doors is still a mystery. The hotel just offers this on a grander scale, with more intrigues to be uncovered, perhaps with an added quality of being somewhere exotic, and the sense of romance and adventure that comes out of that.

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    1. In terms of Christie we also have Evil Under the Sun and A Caribbean Mystery (and there are likely others). I also considered Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night and Ronald Knox’s The Three Taps but it isn’t emphasized in the former and the latter struck me as a little dry.
      I think you are spot on with the idea that the hotel is a supersized country house. I think that the residential hotel is an even closer parallel (though I have come across very few of those).
      One thing that does strike me is that a lot of modern mystery novels that attempt to replicate the fair play model often do use a hotel as a setting (for example Ovidia Yu’s The Betel Nut Tree Mystery or Ashley Weaver’s Murder at the Brightwell). I think that’s because we do remember the hotel as that opulent, exotic setting that you describe.

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      1. Can’t believe I overlooked Evil Under the Sun. Its only one of my favourite Christies 🙂

        I will say a hotel-bound mystery gets extra kudos from me when the venue itself plays a key role in the commission of the crime. For example, moving away from novels, there’s an unfortunately named (because it kinda gives the game away) yet nevertheless superb episode of Death in Paradise that exploits a feature unique to a hotel setting to carry out a truly ingenious impossible crime.

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  3. This is a great idea. People often talk about Country house or Village mysteries but Hotel based ones are often overlooked. Few others I can think of:-
    1) Body in the library by Christie
    2) Chinese orange mystery by Queen
    3) Knock murderer Knock by Harriet Rutland

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  4. I second your recommendation for Murder à la Richelieu and Blackmon’s second and regrettably last novel, There is No Return, is also set in a hotel. Such a shame Blackmon exited the genre after only two mysteries. Not only are they, as you said, uncommonly hardboiled and grisly, but Miss Adelaide Adams ranks with Stuart Palmer’s Miss Hildegarde Withers as the genre’s best spinster sleuths.

    As for my favorites, Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun is perhaps the best and most well-known hotel mysteries, but I’m very fond of Christopher St. John Sprigg’s darkly humorous Crime in Kensington (the scene with the hatbox!) and earlier this year I read Eugenius Quak’s insanely amusing Hoteldebotel in a hotel (Pell-Mell in a Hotel). Kendell Foster Crossen’s 1953 short story, “The Closed Door,” has perhaps the most unique hotel in all of detective fiction and should have been expended into a novel.

    Anyway, thanks for the reminder about Vincent Starrett’s The Great Hotel Murder and the American Mystery Classics reprints in general.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the suggestions – I have Crime in Kensington on my shelf so it’s good to get a push to get to it a little sooner. The other stories sound amusing so I’ll have to investigate further!
      Miss Adams is superb and the only reason I haven’t got to There Is No Return yet is that I am holding off on that inevitable feeling of disappointment when I have read them both!

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  5. I just finished reading William Irish’s short story ‘All at Once, No Alice’ a few minutes ago. Newly wed girl disappears from hotel room…very intriguing & satisfying. Great title, too. The sheer velocity of the narrative makes you overlook the plot’s improbabilities. William Irish was Cornell Woolrich, of course.
    From what I recall, Lucille Fletcher’s intense & gripping ‘…And Presumed Dead’ is mostly a hotel-set novel, too.

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    1. The Irish story does sound interesting. I will have to look to see where I can find that one. I have liked the little Woolrich I have read so far and I am keen to read more.
      Thanks for the Fletcher suggestion too!

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      1. ‘All At Once, No Alice’ can be found in Otto Penzler’s anthology, ‘The Locked-Room Mysteries’ – maybe elsewhere too.

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  6. I like those “Five to Try” lists, Aidan. Have you read “The Murderer Lives at Number 21” by Stanislas-Alexandre Steeman? This classic, set in London but originally written in French, is also set in a pension / hotel.

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    1. Thank you Christophe. I haven’t read that one – was it ever translated? Based on a quick Google translation of the French blurb it definitely sounds like my sort of book.

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      1. Oh dear, I am afraid that the book indeed was never translated into English. I thought it was one of the very few that was, but I cannot find any evidence of it. The closest thing would be the 1942 H-G Clouzot film adaptation with English subtitles.

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  7. I have not read any of the five. I will get them on kindle . ‘Evil under the sun’ definitely is a good specimen of the category. But I think talking of Hotels Mysteries, Two novels by two great authors – Arthur Hailey’s ‘Hotel’ and Colin Dexter ‘s ‘The secret of Annexe 3’ will always find a place near the top.

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    1. I do love Evil Under the Sun and I can’t wait to reach it in my Poirot reread! Thanks for the other suggestions – I read the Dexter years and years ago so perhaps it is time to revisit him?

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