If you’ve ever been to a resort, or even an upmarket club or restaurant, you know that everything there is carefully designed to cater to guests. It looks like it all happens by magic but the fact is that a lot goes on behind the scenes. And sometimes the real story comes from the people who make it all happen. The more you see that, the more you understand how little guests and tourists really see unless they look for it. There’s sometimes a real rift between the people who stay at resorts and go to those upmarket places and the people who make them ‘tick.’ That rift, and what really goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in such places, can make for interesting layers in a novel. And let’s face it; murder at a fancy place can have its own sort of ‘story appeal.’ Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West arranges for his aunt to take a much-needed holiday at the Golden Palm Hotel in the West Indies. She’s not been there long when she meets Major Palgrave, who tells her the story of a man who was married twice and lost both of his wives, allegedly to suicide. Major Palgrave thinks the women were murdered, though. He doesn’t get the chance to explain why to Miss Marple but she remembers the conversation. When Major Palgrave is found dead the next morning, Miss Marple suspects that someone at the resort is connected with the case Major Palgrave described, and doesn’t want the truth to come out. The people who work ‘behind the scenes’ at this luxury resort have useful information about the case; in fact one of them ends up as a victim because of what she discovers. And it’s those ‘behind the scenes’ people and events that provide the key clues to the older mystery and to the other deaths in this novel.
In Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, Nero Wolfe is reluctantly persuaded to travel from his beloved New York brownstone to the posh Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. He’s been invited to deliver the keynote address to Les Quinze Maîtres, a meeting of the fifteen greatest chefs in the world, and against his better judgement he and Archie Goodwin make the trip. One evening, someone stabs one of the master chefs Phillip Laszio. At first, fellow chef Jerome Berin is suspected, but Wolfe doesn’t think he’s guilty. So even though he didn’t want to get involved in the investigation to begin with, he begins to look into the case. Some of the most important clues in this case come from waitstaff and others who work ‘behind the scenes.’ And it’s interesting to see their perceptions of what happens at the spa as opposed to the guests’ perceptions.
Judson Philips wrote a wide range of crime fiction, some of it under the name Hugh Pentecost. Under that pen name he created the Pierre Chambrun series. Chambrun is the manager of New York’s Beaumont Hotel, which caters mostly to the rich and famous. Part of the reason that the hotel is so successful is that everyone who works there knows that the first rule of business is that the guests must not be inconvenienced. So on the surface it looks as though the hotel works almost by magic. But it doesn’t. Chambrun makes it his business to know everything about the guests, and he knows all of his staff members very well too. He uses what he knows to make sure that guests get the ‘royal treatment’ for which they’ve paid. This series is told from the point of view of the hotel’s public relations director Mark Haskell, and that’s an interesting choice of storyteller. Through Haskell’s eyes we get to see how this luxury hotel ‘ticks,’ and we ‘meet’ people that the tourists don’t always get to see. For instance, in The Shape of Fear, Chambrun investigates the murder of long-time resident Murray Cardew. As he looks into the case, we see how people such as chambermaids, bartenders, bellhops and so on turn out to be very useful sources of information.
As anyone who’s been to Venice knows, there are a lot of upmarket places that are designed for tourists. But it’s what goes on behind that façade that interests Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. For instance, Blood From a Stone begins at an open-air market that caters to tourists. One of the men selling handbags there has just laid out his wares for the day’s business when he’s shot execution-style. Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate the case, and it turns out to be a more difficult investigation than they thought. For one thing, the victim is an unidentified Senegalese immigrant. So finding out who he was and why he was in the city proves to be a challenge. Brunetti and Vianello do find out where the man lived though, and when they get there, they discover a side of life in Venice that the tourists never see – the life of poor illegal immigrants. They also discover that this particular immigrant had a cache of diamonds. It turns out that the man’s death is connected to the diamonds and to arms trafficking.
In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir gets an odd case. Her client Jónas Júlíusson is the owner of an upmarket spa and resort. He wants to sue the former owners of the land on which he’s built his property because he believes the land is haunted. His claim is that the former owners knew that but didn’t tell him. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts but she is interested in the fee. Besides, a trip to an upmarket spa isn’t exactly an unwelcome idea. So she takes the case and travels to the spa. Not long after her arrival, the body of fellow guest Birna Hálldorsdóttir is discovered on a beach not far from the resort. Some of the aspects of the murder make Thóra wonder whether it’s related to the stories she’s heard about the land being haunted. She gets even more involved in the murder when her client is accused of the crime and asks her to defend him. As she looks into the case, Thóra discovers that it’s connected to a long-ago disappearance. She also finds that she gets a lot of useful information from receptionists and other staff members who make the resort ‘tick along.’ Through them she hears stories that the ‘regular’ tourists don’t get to know.
We also see that in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, we meet Sonto, who usually goes by her English name Sunday. She lives in Zululand and works at a ‘traditional Zulu village’ designed for tourists. Her boss Xolani, who uses the name Richard, guides the visitors through the village and takes them through ‘traditional ceremonies’ where they think they see what life is like in that area. They don’t. To the tourists, Sunday is a nameless, practically faceless member of the staff that makes the tour run smoothly. But of course Sunday is much more than that. In one of three main plot threads in this story, she is engaged to marry a powerful chieftain Inja Mazibuko. Mazibuko is a killer who’s firmly in the pocket of the minister of finance, so he can get away with whatever he wants, and he’s proven himself useful to the minister on some ‘delicate matters.’ When Sunday sees that she cannot avoid marrying this man (and she has some very personal reasons not to want to do so), she decides to take her fate in her own hands and do whatever she needs to do to get away. Her life is depicted starkly in this novel and it’s a behind-the-scenes life that the tourists don’t get to see.
So the next time you get the chance to stay at an upmarket place or go to an upmarket club or restaurant, remember that it’s not only the posh surface that matters. It’s often those ‘behind the façade’ stories that prove to be the most interesting. Little wonder they work well in crime fiction.
ps. The ‘photo is of Las Vegas’ New York, New York resort. Yes, almost all of that ‘photo is of the same hotel/casino. Like a lot of other upmarket places in Las Vegas, it’s what goes on behind that façade that’s really interesting.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Do it Again.