The Hotel Detective, He Was Outta Sight*

Hotel DetectivesHave you stayed in any hotels recently? Because of the nature of hotels, all kinds of people may be there, for any number of reasons. Most hotel guests are there temporarily, too. So hotels do need to take security seriously. Many modern hotels address that issue by using CCTV and other surveillance. Some hotels have entire security staffs. That’s especially true in large or upmarket hotels, or hotels in places such as Las Vegas, where guests may be either very vulnerable or sorely tempted.

What I haven’t seen in any hotel I’ve stayed at is a hotel detective. I don’t know if hotels hire such professionals any more. Some certainly may. On the other hand, it may not be as necessary today, given how easy it is to set up a security system. But many hotels used to hire them. It was logical, too, since the police couldn’t really patrol a hotel.

Moira at Clothes in Books suggested I take a look at the hotel detective in crime fiction, and I’m glad she did. It’s a fascinating topic! Almost as fascinating as Moira’s excellent blog, which you really should have on your blog roll if you don’t. It’s a treasure trove of information and commentary on clothes and popular culture in books, and what it all says about us.

Raymond Chandler’s short story I’ll Be Waiting tells the story of Tony Reseck, house detective for the Windermere Hotel. He’s concerned about one particular guest, Eve Cressy, who’s been staying in the hotel for five days without leaving her room. She assures him that she’s all right, and just waiting for someone. Then, Reseck gets a message from his brother Al, who warns him to get Eve out of the hotel right away, as she’s in big trouble. It seems that she was mixed up with a criminal who’s recently been released from San Quentin prison, and is coming back to her. Of course, the relationship is a little more complicated than that, and Reseck finds himself getting mixed up in a drama and having to find a creative way out of it.

Much of the action in Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery takes place in the Chancellor Hotel. That’s where Donald Kirk keeps a well-appointed suite of rooms for his publishing business and his rare stamp collection. One day, a strange little man comes to see Kirk. He won’t give his name or his business to Kirk’s assistant James Osborne; instead, he says he’ll wait from Kirk. Osborne settles him in an office Kirk has set up for visitors, promising to let him know when Kirk returns. When Kirk comes back to his office, he and his clerk find to their shock that the visitor’s been murdered. His clothes are on backwards, and the room’s furnishings are backwards, too. Ellery Queen happens to be with Kirk, since the two had meet by chance in the lobby. He immediately takes an interest in the odd case. It’s all made even stranger by the fact that no-one was seen to go in or out of the office. What’s more the door is locked from the inside. This is one of those ‘impossible but not impossible’ cases that Queen fans will know. In this instance, the hotel detective, Brummer, doesn’t solve the case. But he does get involved, and it’s interesting to see how his job is portrayed.

Philip Kerr’s If The Dead Rise Not features his sleuth Bernie Gunther, a former police officer. This story takes place before the events of the Berlin Noir trilogy, and in it, Gunther has taken a job as house detective for the Adlon Hotel. It’s 1934, and the Nazis have taken power. They’re putting their stamp on everything; and, more and more, anyone whose loyalty is called into question is at risk. In fact, Gunther has a run-in with a police detective who questions his commitment to Hitler (in my opinion, Gunther finds a creative way to deal with that!). When he learns that the Nazis are targeting anyone with any kind of Jewish ancestry, he finds himself in trouble, since one of his grandparents was Jewish. As he’s dealing with that problem, he also has two other cases. One is the theft of a Chinese artefact from the room of an American businessman. The other is helping a journalist with her exposé of Hitler’s increasingly harsh treatment of Jews. Through it all, Gunther has to do his best to stay in the face of increasing risk from the Nazis.

There’s also Alan Russell’s novels featuring former surfer-turned hotel detective Am Caulfield, who works at La Jolla’s California Hotel. In The Hotel Detective, he solves several cases, including Carlton Smoltz’ murder of his wife, and the death of contractor Tim Kelly who may or may not have jumped from the balcony of his room. In The Fat Innkeeper, the hotel’s been bought by a Japanese firm, so Caulfield has to deal with his new bosses’ ways of doing things. And then there’s also the poisoning murder of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, who was attending a retreat for those who’d had near-death experiences. Kingsbury was committed to debunking mediums, paranormal experts and so on, so no-one’s really surprised at his death. And that means there are several suspects in this case.

And here are a few other tidbits about house detectives that you might not know.  Dashiell Hammett had several jobs in his lifetime besides writing. One of them, for a time, was as a hotel detective. And E. Howard Hunt (yes, he of the Nixon Watergate years) wrote a thriller, House Dick, about a hotel detective. And finally, Stewart Stirling wrote a series featuring house detective Gil Vine. Those books aren’t as easy to find, but they present a more pulp-fiction/noir picture of the job.

So as you can see, even if the hotels you stay don’t have official house detectives, they’re still out there. At least in fiction. I’ll sleep better knowing that next time I’m on the road…

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re an American Band.


Filed under Alan Russell, Dashiell Hammett, E. Howard Hunt, Ellery Queen, Philip Kerr, Raymond Chandler, Stewart Stirling

34 responses to “The Hotel Detective, He Was Outta Sight*

  1. What a great topic for a post! Kerr’s Bernie Gunther immediately sprang to mind, especially as Kerr places him in Berlin’s iconic Adlon Hotel. I like the sound of Alan Russell’s Caulfield as well – thanks.

    • I thought it was a fantastic idea, too, Mrs. P, and I’m so glad Moira thought of it. I agree, too, that Kerr does a great job with Bernie Gunher’s role as hotel detective, with pitch-perfect placement. You might indeed like Russell’s Caulfield. There’s some solid wit (in my opinion, anyway) woven through those novels.

  2. I’n not sure La Jolla’s California Hotel sounds like a great place for a holiday – almost as dangerous as two weeks in Midsomer from the sound of it! Yes, the role of the private detective, in hotels or elsewhere, really isn’t the same as it used to be. There’s a little ‘private investigation’ company just round the corner from where I live, but as far as I know they only seem to deal with chasing debts. It still always intrigues me whenever I pass it though – I can’t help hoping to spot a femme fatale walking through the door…

    • Oh, I can well imagine, FictionFan! I’d be curious, too. And you’re absolutely right that the role of the house detective or private detective has changed significantly. Somehow it doesn’t have that cachet that it does (earned or no) in some crime novels. And yes, the California Hotel would not be my recommendation for your stay in that area…
      By the way, lovely to see you back!

  3. What a fascinating idea for a post, especially as hotel’s don’t employ detectives any more – as you say the security cameras probably do the job now plus you can’t just turn up and book a room under a false name quite so easily! There have been a spate of bodies found in hotels in the UK news lately so maybe it’s time they returned?

    • Thanks, Cleo. I thought Moira had a fantastic idea, too. And you’re right about checking into a hotel in today’s world. It’s definitely not as easy as it used to be, is it? But as the news shows, cameras and ID requirements don’t mean that bodies aren’t found in hotels. It’s unsettling! Maybe there is a new market for hotel detectives…

  4. Chandler’s THE LITTLE SISTER has a fairly prominent role for a hotel detective as I recall – does Arthur Hailey’s HOTEL have one? I think … mostly it would be ‘security’ today, which does’t have the same ring, does it? 🙂

    • Oh, thanks, Sergio, for mentioning The Little Sister. And you’ve a good memory: the Hailey does indeed have a hotel detective. I shouldh have mentioned that one, so I’m glad you did. And you’re right; somehow ‘Security’ doesn’t have the cachet that ‘Hotel/House Detective’ does.

  5. Margot, as Sergio mentioned, “Hotel,” a general fiction novel by Hailey, is about a struggling hotel and how the management tries to save it from a takeover. It has a house detective though I don’t recall the role he played. Hailey told some good stories in thematic books like “Wheels” and “Airport.” I’d also like to read the stories of Raymond Chandler and Ellery Queen.

    You’re right about Moira’s excellent blog and her consistency in writing about clothes in books. It is such a unique theme.

    • I think it’s a fabulous blog, too, Prashant. And thanks for reminding me of Hotel. It’s not crime fiction per se, but definitely shows the inner workings of a hotel. And that includes the hotel detective.

  6. Interesting! I wonder if hotel detectives are simply unidentifiable in plain clothes or if they’re just not around anymore?

    Nice roundup of examples in the genre, as always!

    • Oh, that’s a good question, Elizabeth! I know there are hotel security teams, but ‘official detectives?’ It could be that they’re not identified, or it could be that hotels have dispensed with them. And of course, you won’t find out easily from hotels themselves. They don’t reveal their security systems that easily…

      Thanks for the kind words!

  7. There is something comforting to think about a detective on the scene. I would image now the head of a hotel’s security would be like a detective in some ways. Another post to make one think, Margot. 🙂

    • Thanks, Mason. And you know, you have a point. People do rest more easily in hotels knowing that someone is ensuring everyone’s safety. And there’s no reason you couldn’t think of a hotel’s head of security as a detective.

  8. Patti Abbott

    La Jolla has its own series. I have to find it. And I love this idea. It would make a great anthology, wouldn’t it? Or an anthology of stories set in hotels. I love it.

    • I really think you would like the setting a lot, Patti. And I love your idea of an anthology of stories set in hotels! Now you’re giving me ideas – always a dangerous thing…

  9. This is absolutely fascinating. I had no idea hotel detectives existed in real life. Do you know what year they stopped using them?

    • I don’t, I’m sorry to say, Sue. And I couldn’t say with any assurance that there aren’t any anymore. I’ve never stayed in any hotel that had one, but that doesn’t mean they no longer exist.

  10. Col

    Not happened across any in my reading just yet, maybe one day!

  11. Margot: Does it count for staying in a hotel that I am on a cruise ship? If it does I can confirm that there is significant security which may be the new term for hotel security. You are verified on and off the ship and there is a screen of every bag that comes aboard.

    • Oh, I remember that security from a cruise that I took. You’re quite right about scanning bags and so on. I think a cruise ship certainly does count as a sort of hotel atmosphere, and they absolutely would have to have a good security team aboard. Good point! And I hope you are having a wonderful trip.

  12. Thanks for the kind words, and I’m so glad you rose to my challenge! I’m sure there is NO topic you can’t make a post on, but hotel detectives are truly a source of interest, thank you for bringing together these examples fo my delectation….

  13. Stayed in more hotels that I care to recall, but I have never been aware of a hotel detective. Have been in need of one more than once, but never come across one. Lots of events in hotels lend themselves to being great plots for books however. Fabulous piece, thanks for getting the little grey cells pinging. 🙂

    • Hotels are absolutely terrific places for crime fiction, aren’t they, Jane? So many possibilities. And it is interesting that you just don’t see hotel detectives any more (Sorry to here you’ve been in the situation of needing one!). Modern security cameras and staffs are what most hotels do now, I suppose.

      • Believe it or not I was on tour with a band in Florida staying at a hotel (Miami) and we left at 5am to do a live on air radio interview. When we returned our rooms had been ‘done over’ and money etc missing. The manager shook his head in defeat when asked to call the cops. He said the whole hotel had been taken over by cops from all over the USA and we were the only guests not connected with law enforcement. Who did he think we should call!! We had noticed a lot of police in the building but not put two and two together. So, nothing was done. No CCTV back then and no in-house detectives etc. Our loss, but actually the word went out around artists and they boycotted the hotel in future. lol

        • Oh, my goodness, Jane! What a hotel ‘war story!’ And how very ironic that you’d have had your room ransacked when those particular guests were in the hotel. What an experience!! It would have been so different if there’d been CCTV or a hotel detective. I’m just glad none of you was hurt, even if you did lose your money and so on.

        • LOL it made us laugh Margot; after! Now who could have done that?

        • Still shaking my head over it!

  14. I have always wanted to read one of E. Howard Hunt’s books. I will have to look for House Dick.

  15. Thanks for mentioning Chandler’s story. I’ll have to look it up and read it. Oops! Sergio beat me to the punch, but I’ll also mention the the sleazy hotel detective in The Little Sister that Marlowe doesn’t get along with. His comment about Hotel makes me wonder: was there a hotel detective in Grand Hotel (the movie or the novel)? I don’t specifically recall one.

    • I think there was one in the novel, Bryan, but I’m not 100% sure. And I really do recommend the Chandler story. It’s quite well written, with Chandler’s classic treatment.

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