He Was the Bed and Breakfast Man*

B&BsIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned that B&B’s are a different sort of accommodation to boarding houses or lodges. They’re not usually intended for long-term guests. At the same time, like lodging and boarding houses, they are often private homes. There’s also a sort of intimacy about the B&B that isn’t as common in hotels. The B&B makes a sometimes very pleasant alternative to the hotel or motel, too. You may not be able to get your dinner, but if you do a bit of research (and have a bit of luck), a B&B can be delightful.

There are a number of them in crime fiction; and, even when they aren’t directly concerned in the plot of a novel, they can certainly add character to a story. Here are just a few examples.

In Lawrence Block’s The Burglar in the Library, New York bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr plans a romantic getaway for himself and his current love interest Lettice Littlefield. The plan is for them to go to Cuttleford House, a lovely B&B in upstate New York. Then, Lettice surprises Bernie with the news that she can’t go because she’s getting married – to someone else. Not wanting to waste the trip or go alone, Bernie invites his friend Carolyn Kaiser in Lettice’s place. To add to his motivation, there’s a rare book in Cuttleford’s library that he’d like very much to have. The snowfall that started before they even got to the B&B gets worse and worse. Still they arrive safely and prepare to enjoy a break from New York City. Then, the body of fellow guest Jonathan Rathburn is found in the very library where Bernie saw the book he wants. And with everyone snowbound, it’s more than likely that one of the other people at the B&B is the killer. And Rathburn’s is only the first death…

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Nag, Lochdubh Constable Hamish Macbeth has recently been demoted from sergeant. That in itself might not be so bad, but he’s also dealing with the breaking of his engagement to Priscilla Halburton-Smythe. And the circumstances of that breakup haven’t exactly made him popular. He’s fed up and a bit at loose ends, as the saying goes. So he makes arrangements to stay for a bit at the Friendly House, a beachside inn, and makes the trip there. It’s not really a B&B – more like a boarding house – and it’s certainly not friendly. There are all sorts of annoying and eccentric guests, and the hosts are not exactly model innkeepers. Then, one of the residents, Bob Harris, is murdered. Macbeth gets drawn into the investigation. He traces Harris’ last days, including an incident in which he saw Harris leave a house that he’s discovered is a brothel. Unfortunately, when Macbeth returns to follow up on that clue, he knocks at the wrong door:

‘An angry flush rose up her face. ‘This is a respectable bed and breakfast, I’ll have ye know. It’s that Simpson creature you’re wanting. I could hae ye for slander. Off wi’ ye.’

Upon hearing that the brothel he’s looking for is next door, he makes a very understandable hasty retreat. A few moments later, he speaks to the brothel owner, Mrs. Simpson. Here’s what she says when Macbeth tells her about the mistake he’s made:

‘She burst out laughing. ‘That must ha’ got the old biddy’s knickers in a twist. I can tell you her gentleman boarders, as she ca’s them, drink mair than any o’ the lot that come here.’

Just because a B&B is respectable doesn’t mean all of its guests are…

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that many of the stories take place in the small, rural Québec town of Three Pines. If you aren’t staying with relatives or friends there, the place to stay is the local B&B/bistro, owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. It’s the setting for many interactions in the series, and both owners get involved at one point or another in the mysteries that Gamache investigates.

There are also, of course, a few mystery series set in B&Bs, with owners as sleuths. For example, there’s Jean Hager’s Iris House B&B Mystery novels. Beginning with Blooming Murder, the series follows Iris House’s owner Tess Darcy as she converts her late Aunt Iris’ former Missouri home into a B&B and launches her business. Things get off to a rather rocky start when Tess prepares to host participants in the Iris Growers’ Convention – and one of them ends up dead, stabbed with a cake knife.

And for a truly creepy B&B story, I recommend Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. Billy Weaver has just arrived in Bath to start a new job. He’s on his way to the Bell and Dragon, where he’s heard he can get a decent room, when he happens to pass a small, homey-looking place with a B&B sign. On impulse, he stops there and asks about a room. You can read what happens next right here. But I suggest you read it during the day. And not just as you’re looking up a B&B for that next getaway…

Don’t let stories like The Landlady stop you booking a B&B, though. They can be wonderful places; I know I’ve had some great experiences.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Madness’ The Bed and Breakfast Man.


Filed under Jean Hager, Lawrence Block, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Roald Dahl

26 responses to “He Was the Bed and Breakfast Man*

  1. I read A Small Deceit by Margaret Yorke where a small guest house (so nearly a B&B) was integral to the plot with many of the residents being secretive about their true identities for different reasons.

    • Thanks, Cleo. I’m really glad you mentioned Margaret Yorke’s work. She certainly could create a psychologically very tense atmosphere, and was good at creating characters with something to hide. And a guest house is a great setting for a mystery like that.

  2. I love that creepy Roald Dahl story! I can only contribute a real-life example for this topic. A friend of mine was delivering a training course in some remote part of the UK she had never visited before and had booked a B&B online. When she showed up there after the course, she said it had the vibe of Bates’ Motel. There were no other guests, the keys were under the mat, the house was all dark and seemed abandoned. She finally turned round and drove to the nearest Travelodge.

    • Oh, that really is an eerie story, Marina Sofia! I’d have turned round too. I once stayed at a B&B where the hosts didn’t happen to be at home when I arrived. But they knew that was going to happen, so they left me a note with an apology and directions to find the key. Then, when they got home they introduced themselves to me. It was a little weird, but it turned out not bad at all. And about The Landlady? I think it's a fabulous short story; I sometimes believe that Dahl doesn't get the credit he deserves as a crime/suspense storyteller.

  3. I’m just reading a Ngaio Marsh book, Colour Scheme, which is set in New Zealand in the 40s, at a rather hopelessly amateurish hot springs spa. A great Shakespearean actor comes to stay with entourage. The hosts are bumbling (including being horrified when more guests are wanting to come) and everyone’s affairs get all tangled up. It’s very funny, and wince-making at the same time….

    • Oh, I love it, Moira! And thank you for reminding me, too. I haven’t thought about that one in so long that when I read your review (I mean, I hope you’ll be reviewing?) it’ll be a good refresher course. Much ‘preciated!

  4. I love the sound of the Lawrence Block book – there’s nothing quite like a body in a library and put it together with a snowstorm…

    • Oh, and Block can tell a story, FictionFan. In my opinion (so not everyone may agree…) this is a good mix of traditional mystery and more contemporary speech patterns and so on. If you read it, I hope you’ll like it.

  5. Patti Abbott

    I love B and Bs and would always choose one. Who can’t love the conversation you are privy to over breakfast. But Phil hates having to make small talk with strangers. In there, lies a story perhaps.

    • Oh, it does, Patti! Thanks for the inspiration. I’ll have to let that ‘marinate’ in my brain and see what happens. In the meantime, I know what you mean about the opportunity to ‘tune’ in on a lot over the coffee. It’s admittedly not for everyone, but a good B&B can be a terrific experience.

  6. It has been so long since I have read a Bernie Rhodenbarr book. I will have to find this one and read it. I have read Roald Dahl’s story, Landlady, and it may have been after you suggested it when I had read another of his stories. And it is a good one.

    • Roald Dahl could tell a good suspense story, Tracy. I’m glad you liked The Landlady. And I need to actually re-read some of the Bernie Rhodenbarr books, too. That’s the thing about trying to keep up with new books coming out (or new discoveries). It’s hard to make the time to re-read the ‘old friends.’

  7. Kathy D.

    I can’t resist in discussing B&B’s to add the late, great B.B. King to this discussion. He was the King of the Blues over here in the States, and just passed away at the age of 89. Originally a sharecropper’s child, he was paid 4 cents a record and found picking cotton paid more.
    He was entirely self-taught and was a huge figure in music here, known by everyone in the field and by fans.
    And, yes, the Bernie Rhodenbarr books are a lot of fun. I’ve read them all and wish more had been written. Talk about laugh out loud! My favorite line: “Whenever I get the urge to job, I lie down and let it pass.”

  8. Col

    Note to self, I need to read some of Block’s Burglar books! Cheers for the reminder!

  9. Kathy D.

    I meant to say that Bernie Rhodenbarr’s quote was, “Whenever I get the urge to jog, I lie down and let it pass.” I live by this motto, including with regard to housework.

  10. I was thinking about a B&B as a writing retreat….now, I wonder….

  11. The entire time I was reading this the song Hotel California by The Eagles was playing in my mind. “You can check out anytime you’d like, but you can never leave.”

  12. Margot: Louise Penny has created a wonderful B & B in Three Pines hosted by Gabi and Olivier. It always sounds like such a beautiful escape from the trials and cares of the world.

    In non-crime fiction, The Hills is Lonely by Lillian Beckwith, sees a form of accommodation between the boarding house of yesterday’s post and today’s B & B. She comes to spend some time in the Hebrides with a widowed lady and ends up staying indefinitely charmed by the 1950’s life of the island and the islanders.

  13. When I worked in the village bookshop in Mull we stocked tons of Lillian Beckwiths! As I think I’ve mentioned to you Margot, my mum did B&B since 1977 – still does, for some regular guests. She ended up in the Lonely Planet Guide, which you can’t pay to get into. A lot of families enjoyed the mix of farm and B&B, and would help bottle feed the stray lambs, and feed the hens. A lot of the same people came back year after year – and it was the guests who were responsible for introducing me to Agatha Christie, as many were left, over the years!

    • Yes, of course, Crimeworm! I remember your telling me about your mum’s B&B. I love the idea of guests getting involved with some of the farm work, too. I don’t think I’ve ever bottle-fed a lamb. 🙂 Your mum’s place is the sort of place I mean when I mention how lovely the B&B experience can, well, be. And I’m glad for another nudge about Beckwith. I should spotlight one of her books at some point.

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