Thursday, April 29, 2010

You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave*

One of the interesting things about crime fiction is to think about where the murder in the story takes place. If a murder takes place, for instance, in the victim’s home, suspicion naturally tends to fall on family members and neighbors. If the murder occurs at the victim’s place of work, then co-workers are often suspected. It’s harder, though, to know exactly whom to suspect when the victim’s in a different place altogether. That’s what makes murders that take place at hotels and inns so interesting. A diverse group of people tends to gather at hotels, and then move on after a few days, So it can be much harder to get the evidence against just one person. It’s also easier for the murderer to have easy access to the victim in a natural way; again, all sorts of people gather at hotels and inns, so it’s easy for the murderer to “hide” at a hotel. This may be one reason for which the hotel/inn context is popular. Another may be that for authors of a series, hotels and inns allow for new and interesting settings and characters.

Agatha Christie used hotels and inns as the setting for several of her stories; I’ll just mention two. In Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger hotel, off the Devon coast. Also staying at the hotel is the famous and beautiful actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. With her are her husband, Kenneth, and her stepdaughter, Linda. There’s also a group of other guests, including an older American couple, the Gardners; a clergyman, the Reverand Stephen Lane; a businessman, Mr. Horace Blatt; a retired naval officer, Colonel Barry; Miss Emily Brewster, an athlete; Rosamund Darnley, a famous dress designer; and Patrick and Christine Redfern, a young couple. Before long, it becomes obvious that Arlena Marshall and Patrick Redfern are infatuated with each other, and everyone starts gossiping about them. Then, one day, Arlena is strangled. The most likely suspect is Arlena’s husband, Kenneth, but he’s got an alibi for the time of the murder. Since Poirot’s staying at the hotel, and since he may have been the last person to see Arlena Marshall alive, he gets involved in the investigation. What he finds is that Arlena’s murderer took advantage of the fact that a holiday at a hotel provides the perfect “cover” for a murder, since people at a hotel don’t need to invent a reason to be in the same place at the same time.

A hotel is also the setting of Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel. Miss Marple is visiting London and is staying at the sophisticated, traditional Bertram’s Hotel which she remembers from her girlhood. It’s not long before the hotel is plagued with some strange events. First, there’s the odd story of Canon Pennyfeather, one of the other guests at the hotel. Pennyfeather had left the hotel for the airport on what turned out to be the wrong day. Admittedly absent-minded, Pennyfeather returns to the hotel, only to be knocked out. Then, he disappears. When he awakens, at quite a distance from the hotel, he finds that someone looking exactly like him was seen at the site of a train robbery during the time he was blacked out. Then, Elvira Blake, who’s also staying at the hotel, is nearly shot to death late one night as she’s walking back to the hotel. Later, Michael “Micky” Gorman, the hotel’s commissionaire, is murdered. Miss Marple finds out that the robbery, the Canon’s disappearance, and Micky Gorman’s murder are all connected by a set of relationships that are neatly “hidden” by the anonymity one can find at a hotel.

There’s also an interesting use of a hotel-as-context in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, in which Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey investigate the murder of Russian-born professional dancer/escort Paul Alexis. Alexis works for a local hotel, where he meets and becomes engaged to wealthy, widowed Mrs. Weldon. One day, Harriet Vane, who’s taking a hiking holiday in the area, finds Alexis’ body. His death initially looks like suicide, but it’s not long before Vane, with help from Lord Peter Wimsey, come to realize that his death was murder. At first, it seems that Alexis’ death was related to a Russian political plot, and the hotel setting adds to that theory. In the end, though, it turns out that Alexis was murdered for greed.

That very anonymity also provides a “cover” for a murderer in Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma. In that novel, the lucky Watson family has won an all-expenses paid trip to the posh Hotel Beaumont in New York City. All of the staff have been told that these guests are to be given every luxury, and when the Watsons arrive, they’re soon ensconced in a luxury suite on the ultra-exclusive fourteenth floor. For the Watson, who are from a small town, this trip seems too good to be true, and they enjoy themselves until one morning when beautiful, twelve-year-old Marilyn Watson disappears. At first, no-one thinks much of it, as everyone believes the girl is just wandering around the hotel, exploring. When Marilyn doesn’t return, the family and staff begin to get concerned. The Watson’s worst fears are realized when her body is later found stuffed into a trash can. Hotel manager Pierre Chambrun and public relations liaison Mark Haskell work with the police to find out who killed Marilyn Watson and why. They narrow the list of suspects down to the other guest of the fourteenth floor, and begin to look into each guest’s background and possible motive. As it turns out, all of the guests on that floor are hiding something, and in one case, it’s a secret identity that Marilyn accidentally discovered.

J.L. Wilson’s Autographs, Abductions and A-List Authors gives another example of how convenient a hotel can be for a murderer. That’s the story of the Mystery/Romance Writers and Readers national convention, to be held in Abilene, Texas. Beatrice R. “Bea” Emerson is thrilled that her novel has been nominated for a Silver Stylus Award in the Romantic Suspense category, so she eagerly travels to the convention. Emerson attends a cocktail party where she finally gets the chance to meet famous author Jan Pritchard. Just after Emerson gets Pritchard to autograph a copy of her book, Pritchard suddenly dies. Since Emerson was the last person near Pritchard, she becomes a suspect. She has a motive, too, since Pritchard was Emerson’s strongest competitor for the Silver Stylus Award. Abilene detective L.J. Remarchik is assigned the case, and has the thankless task of investigating Emerson, although he’s become romantically interested in her. For her part, Emerson realizes she’s a suspect, and, eager to clear her name, works with Remarchik to look into Pritchard’s background and find out which of the many other people at the convention had enough motive to kill her.

San Francisco’s Hotel Cordoba is the scene for murder in Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor. Shortly after a veterans’ convention at the hotel, several attendees contract a virulent form of influenza and begin to die. Then, other, similar deaths begin to occur. Dr. Calvin Doohan, who works with the World Health Organization, offers his services to the local Department of Public Health to try to find out what’s causing this epidemic. He learns that this convention isn’t the only one that has ended in death. Before long, Doohan begins to suspect that the epidemic might have been deliberate, and he’s soon suspicious of even those with whom he works. In the end, he’s able to find out who caused the epidemic and why. Doohan discovers that the Hotel Cordoba was deliberately chosen in part because it was hosting a large gathering of people.

The hotel itself is almost a character in Rosemary Harris’ The Big Dirt Nap, the second of her Paula Holliday mysteries. Holliday is talked into spending a spa weekend with her friend Lucy Cavanaugh at Titans, a hotel and resort in Connecticut’s wine country. Lucy’s scheduled to do a TV story for a show called Sin in Suburbia and she promises Paula an all-expenses paid vacation week-end. Paula, who owns Dirty Business, a landscaping and gardening company, even gets the Springfield Bulletin to agree to publish a story she intends to write about the blooming of hotel’s sample of a rare flower commonly called the “corpse flower” because of its strong smell. When Paula arrives, she finds that Lucy isn’t there yet, but she checks in and is soon hit on by another guest, ladies’ man Nick Vigoriti. Vigoriti doesn’t easily take “no” for an answer, but Paula finally manages to elude him. When Lucy doesn’t show up or answer calls, Paula thinks her friend’s met someone, and decides to watch the rare flower bloom, do her story and leave. Then, Vigoriti’s body is found behind the hotel dumpster. Paula ends up having to identify the body and becomes a suspect herself. She finally manages to leave Titans only to discover that Lucy may be in real trouble. When her own home is broken into, Paula returns to the hotel to find out what really happened to Vigoriti, and to try to find Lucy. What she finds is that Vigoriti was murdered because of what he knew about a dispute having to do with Native American lands, casino gambling, and property.

Hotels and inns can be full of atmosphere, they attract all sorts of different guests, and they bring a wide variety of people together. So it’s no wonder they serve as effective contexts for murder mysteries. Which are your favorite “hotel” mysteries?

NOTE: The title of this blog is a line from the Eagles’ Hotel California.


  1. Hotels and inns do make for interesting locations for mysteries and murder. Bed and breakfasts are another site that works great. The location can be a character in itself (especially if the place is haunted by a murder victim). Interesting post. Love the title.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. I agree about hotels and inns being good settings for murder, and love your examples. Hotel rooms are also very impersonal and the things in them largely have no character, unlike someone's home or office.

    I liked Martha Grimes' first Richard Jury book The Man with a Load of Mischief, where two murders take place in pubs. I also enjoyed Colin Dexter's The Secret of Annexe 3, where three couples are in a hotel annexe when a murder is committed.

  3. Mason - Thank you : ). I wish I could take credit for the title, but Glenn Frey, Don Henley, and the rest of the guys got there before I did : ). You're right, too, about the B & B; it's got even more potential, in a way, for a murder mystery context, because who knows what kind of family could run the place ; )?

    Book Mole - I think you must be psychic! I was going to include The Secret of Annexe 3 in today's post, but it had gotten long enough and I didn't want to overdo it. You are right, though; it's a perfect example of the hotel as a context for a murder mystery. That's a well-taken point about the impersonality of rooms, too.

    That's an interesting point about pubs, and of course, The Man With a Load of Mischief is an excellent example of the pub as a context for murder. We get to see and hear a lot of the local gossip that way. Methinks there's a post in that... thanks ; ).

  4. One thing I've always enjoyed in the old-fashioned cozy is when the plot takes place in unrelated locations, like a hotel AND a town far from the hotel. (Christie did a few of these - I think Body In the Library, and also to a lesser extent A Murder is Announced.)

    The problem with these is that the old cozies that used them often used a police procedure inaccuracy to make them flow - they treated Scotland Yard as a national police force. In reality it would be separate police forces and more complicated. But I like the unity of the fake version - the detective who had authority everywhere allowed the story to focus on characters and case.

  5. Brilliant post, it's given me lots of food for thought on my own work in progress. Thank you.

  6. Daring Novelist - You're right; it really is interesting (and takes talent) when a mystery takes place in two unrelated places. As you say, Christie did that in The Body in the Library and A Murder is Announced. More recently, M.C. Beaton did that in Love, Lies and Liquor, featuring her Agatha Rasin.

    You also make an interesting point about accuracy. As you say, Scotland Yard isn't a national police force. So it is more complicated to investigate murders than we see in some novels. But sometimes, the flow of a plot really does go more smoothly when certain liberties are taken. When the writing, plot and characters are good, those inaccuracies can be forgiven : ).

    Suzanne - Why, thank you! That's very kind of you, and I'm glad that something you read here was helpful.

  7. Margot I had thought of staying at the Burgh Island Hotel off Bigbury on the South Devon coast [only about 2 hours from our home] which was the inspiration for the Jolly Roger Hotel, but it is way too expensive for a retiree.
    The Orient Express is almost hotel like in its luxury in the famous Christie story, and in the Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes we move from hotel to sleeper train.
    I am always fascinated by the way local British police forces accept interference from Scotland Yard busy bodies in detective stories. Today in reality each force has its own CID who would be quite able to deal with a murder, but perhaps the situation was different in the 1920s and 1930s.

  8. Norman - Retired or not, some hotels really are too expensive, even if one's got as good a reason as you did to stay there. Some day I'd love to visit those places that inspired Christie's writing....

    You've got a good point, too, about the Orient Express; I hadn't thought of it as a hotel, but I can see how similar it is. One might say the same thing about the Blue Train in Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train, although not as much action takes place on it as does on the Orient Express.

    It's interesting you'd bring up the way investigations are now conducted. In Simon Beckett's Whispers of the Dead, the protagonist, forensics expert Dr. David Hunter, who's British, visits the U.S. and is drawn into an investigation there. He comments on the differences between U.S. and British investigations, saying that the different forces (CIDs, Scotland Yard, etc..) have a different relationship to each other than do U.S. police forces and, for instance, the FBI. Interesting to think about how different police forces co-operate or don't. I think you're probably right, though, that the way investigations were conducted probably was quite different during the Golden Age.

  9. I will have to repeat The Secret of Annexe 3. There must be several others, but Dexter´s great story is the only one that springs to mind.

  10. Dorte - Isn't that a fantastic story? I'm very glad that you mentioned it again : ). It's a terrific example.

  11. Nice post, Margot, as always. I have just got to a point in the book I am reading (Caught by Harlan Coben) where a vital clue has turned up in a motel. I don't know yet whether the location will turn out to be important...the book is great, though!
    Jack Reacher (Lee Child) often seems to have showdowns in hotels, or other exciting events happen to him in them. I suppose it goes with the territory of being a nomad as you have to sleep somewhere.

  12. Maxine - Thank you! And I am eager to hear wht you think of Caught. I hope it continues to live up to your expectations. And you're right about Jack Reacher. It seems that he lives more in hotetls than anywhere else, so yes, the major events in his life are almost always there.