If travel broadens the mind, mine must be as wide as the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m always on the move, which has of late has involved staying with friends, in hostels and, of course, at hotels. Establishments that feature in crimes, real and imagined, again and again. In some of these places, you are lucky to leave in one piece.
What’s in a name?
Recently I booked into the White House—no not that one—mine was located on New York’s Bowery. The red carpet and flaming torches at the door were a wonderful sight to behold. The crisp sound of my shoes on the floor as I walked up to reception was a thing of beauty. I couldn’t believe all this luxury was being delivered at a budget price.
It wasn’t. I was in the wrong place.
I was in the Bowery Hotel. The White House was across the street. The board with the name White House written on it told me so. To be fair, it was clean, safe and friendly, but is the only establishment I have ever stayed where my feet and head made contact with the walls… at the same time. I may be tall, but I am not Bigfoot. I imagine prison cells are more spacious.
No writer has made hotels the centrepiece of her work more than Agatha Christie. At Bertram’s Hotel sees Miss Marple trying to recapture her youth by staying at the hotel which holds happy memories for her. What the place delivers instead of peace is two bullets, one of which ends up killing the unfortunate hotel Commissionaire. The other, claims the heiress found in the presence of the dead body, was meant for her and the brave member of staff shielded her from certain death. The plot unfolds in the way only Christie can deliver, but it has made me slightly wary of staying anywhere with a name like Bertram’s.
Real life can be stranger even than fiction.
I used to busk (play music in the street) in Scotland’s windswept capital. The Edinburgh of Alexander McCall Smith is indeed a place of contradiction and mystery. After playing, I used to go to an upmarket club, where there was no dress code, to have my tea and biscuits. When the club was put up for sale, I was given the opportunity to look in my hat for the millions of dollars asking price. In the belief that there might be some money I hadn’t seen tucked under the brim, I agreed to run the place for a week whilst we all considered our options. I discovered firsthand what a hotbed of human emotion and intrigue such places are. Needless to say, my brim was empty and the club’s fortunes and mine were not intertwined for all eternity.
New York’s Algonquin Hotel has a rich and multi-layered literary history. The comings and going of great writers have been witnessed, decade after decade, by Matilda the Cat. The first in a long line of cats was given the run of the hotel in the 30s. (The males are named Hamlet.) When I visited, I forgot to ask for the “Friends of Matilda” package, which includes cocktails and a model of the famous feline. I did, however, share several memorable moments with her when I was sitting there trying to map out the plot for my next book. Approachable, yet distant, engaging yet aloof; the perfect character for any mystery novel.
Matilda does not find favour with everyone, unfortunately. A letter to the hotel alleged Matilda was wandering in food areas (a crime by NY’s food safety standards). The solution was to introduce an invisible electric fence around the lobby. I think this was unnecessary. A consultation with me would have solved the problem: when I showed Matilda the criminally-high cocktail prices, she was gone in a flash. In fairness, this is New York and the prices were not any greater than those in other luxury establishments where, in order to wet your whistle, you have to trade an arm or leg, if not both. Matilda would have known that if she got out more.
Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.