Year: 2012 (15 March)
Source: Review copy
At a time when adaptations of Sherlock Holmes appear to be almost everywhere – in our cinemas, on our TV screens and on our book shelves – Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth Cameron adds something a little different to the trend. In this novel, Arthur Conan Doyle has arrived in New York City in 1896 at the start of his first publicity tour around America for his Sherlock Holmes stories. During his stay at the proud and esteemed Britannic Hotel, a woman is found murdered, most brutally, in a nearby alley. But it is not the interest of Conan Doyle that is caught by this crime, it is that of his wife Louisa. Louisa recognises the face of the victim in the policeman’s sketch. She has seen her in the hotel. When a chance accident renders Louisa unfit to accompany her husband on his tour, she passes the time by putting together the pieces of what turns out to be the most horrific and insane puzzle.
At the heart of Winter at Death’s Hotel is the figure of Louisa Conan Doyle and she charms the socks off every page. A young and confident woman, vibrant and funny, restricted by her corsets and the conventions of marriage, she loves her husband Arthur, revelling in a sexual desire that is barely confined to the privacy of the bedchamber. This restraint or secrecy or even hypocrisy is a powerful theme of the novel. What is it that goes on behind closed doors, what secrets do walls hide and what happens when these passions or instincts are unleashed? Louisa might be tied by tradition and moral codes but, with her husband away, she can snip away at the laws, bit by bit.
Louisa draws others into her investigations, especially the ‘modern’ female journalist Minnie Fitch, her maid Ethel, the hotel detective and other guests in the hotel, which include Henry Irving and William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody – a fascinating cast of characters (and suspects). Then there is the police force. This is a time when New York City was ruled by its gangs and members of its police force had their own allegiances and codes. Everyone has their own agenda and goals, leaving Louisa and Minnie almost alone to fight for the victims. Very soon there is more than one and the Ripper-esque horrors suffered by these women makes Louisa fight all the harder.
Winter at Death’s Hotel is an excellent and memorable historical murder mystery and it is clever. While much of the first half is a drama of manners, with Louisa’s investigations hampered and delayed by contemporary attitudes towards a woman who has an absent husband, this veneer erodes as Louisa gets closer to the truth and the truth gets closer to her. It’s not long before it is almost impossible to distinguish between what is true and what is false. A man may behave impeccably in the hotel restaurant but how does he behave in a club, behind the back door, in an alley?
The attitude of the times towards women creates the crimes and it also restricts women such as Louisa, who has to beg for money from her husband with whom she engages in argument by polite telegram. This is all the more nonsensical because Arthur Conan Doyle clearly adores his wife. But just as undercurrents of love, sex and laughter can be found below the conventions of a well to do marriage, so too does something terrible and mad crouch beneath society’s polished surface, represented here by the Britannic Hotel.
Kenneth Cameron achieves something very special with the style of Winter at Death’s Hotel. It is extremely well written but it also benefits from an ease and accessibility that pulls the reader in from the beginning. All credit to Cameron for creating such a completely believable and likeable female heroine. Louisa is an admirable guide through the maze of 1890s’ polite society, through the pitfalls of a happy upper middle class marriage, and, ultimately, through a terrible sequence of events.
In a way, this ease and charm, the way we fall for characters such as Louisa and Minnie, fools us because it means we are completely unprepared for the way that events unfold. I think I read the second half of the novel with my jaw dropped to my chest. This is a novel I won’t forget in a hurry and I urge you to read it.
Winter at Death’s Hotel is published on 15 March.