Please Sign the Book on the Way Out the Door*

Visitors' BooksIt used to be that when people checked into a guest house or hotel, they signed a guest book as part of the registration process. And there are all sorts of examples in literature of ‘The Smiths,’ ‘The Browns,’ or ‘The Jones’ signing guest books when couples wanted to keep their visits discreet.

Many hotels and resorts no longer have guest or visitors’ books, but those books are still very much a part of the travel experience (and the wedding experience, too). In crime fiction, they can establish an alibi (real or fake), provide interesting clues, and sometimes, just add to the story. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay. With her are her husband, Kenneth, and stepdaughter, Linda. Shortly after the family’s arrival, Arlena begins a not-too-well-hidden affair with another guest, Patrick Redfern. So, when she is murdered one day, her husband is the obvious first suspect. But he has a solid alibi, so the police have to look elsewhere. Hercule Poirot is staying in the same hotel; and in fact, he is very likely the last person to have seen the victim before she was killed. So he helps the police with their investigation. One of the other suspects is fellow guest Reverend Stephen Lane. He has a fixation with the ‘woman-as-temptress;’ and to him, Arlena Marshall is the embodiment of that temptation. Lane, however, says that he was a few miles away, visiting a church. He supports himself by pointing out that he signed the church’s visitors’ book. While such an alibi can easily be faked, it’s interesting that he uses it.

A guest book provides a frightening piece of information in 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 to try to get a room when he happens upon an inviting-looking B&B. On impulse, he goes in. His choice has drastic consequences, which you can read about right here. Suffice it to say that signing the guest book plays quite a role in what happens.

In Arne Dahl’s Misterioso, we meet Stockholm police detective Paul Hjelm. After successfully managing a dangerous hostage situation that occurred during a bank robbery, Hjelm is given a new assignment. He’s appointed to an elite team of detectives investigating a series of murders. The victims are high-profile, successful business leaders who are each killed in the same way at night in their homes. One of the team’s tasks is to find out who would have had the chance to encounter all of the victims. That trail leads to Kevinge Golf Course, an exclusive club:
‘So how do things work here? Do the members go out and start playing as soon as they arrive, or do they have to register somewhere?’ [Hjelm]
‘We have a guest book, and everyone who wants to play has to sign in first.’
‘May I have a look at it?’
‘You’re leaning on it. Excuse me, I have to see to the guests who just came in.’
‘No, you don’t,’ said Hjelm. ‘While I leaf through the pages for the past few weeks, you can take a quick look in that fancy computer of yours and find out when Daggfeldt and Strand-Julén [two of the victims] became members.’

The golf club turns out to be a useful lead.

In Kate Charles’ Evil Angels Among Them, frightening things begin to happen in the small, quiet Norfolk village of Walston. First, Becca Thorncroft, the Rector’s new bride, starts getting horrible telephone calls that shake her to the core. She tries to cope with it as best she can without letting her husband Stephen know, but it’s got her terribly upset. Then, Flora Newell, a local social worker, is poisoned. It’s soon clear that there’s more to Walston than its peaceful surface. Father Stephen Thorncroft enlists the help of his ‘aunt’ Lucy Kingsley and her partner, solicitor David Middleton-Brown, to find out what’s behind the events in the village. The two travel from London to Walston to do what they can. The investigation turns out to be more than the couple bargained for when there’s another death; and a conversation they have about the church’s guest book really says it all:

‘’But look at the comments.’ Lucy pointed the right-hand column on the most recent page… ‘They all say, ‘Peaceful.’’…
David grinned ‘It shows how little they know about Walston if they think it’s peaceful.’’

Admittedly, in this mystery, the visitors’ book doesn’t solve the crime; but it adds a touch of interest to the story.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s upcoming short story The Visitors Book. Retired milliner Blake Heatherington is visiting family in Devon when murder interrupts his holiday. He’s staying at the upmarket Bellevue Hotel when he reads in the local paper that the mayor has died in a fishing accident. But the mayor’s wife doesn’t think it was an accident at all. Since Heatherington is a friend of the family, it’s not long before he gets involved in finding out the truth about the mayor’s death that’s hidden in the visitors book. Incidentally, this story will be coming out on 14 December to those who’ve registered for D.S. Nelson’s newsletter. Interested? You can sign up right here.

Talking of signing things, do be careful if you go sightseeing this weekend, and are invited to sign a guest or visitors’ book. You never know where it may lead…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Good Night and Thank You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arne Dahl, D.S. Nelson, Kate Charles, Roald Dahl

20 responses to “Please Sign the Book on the Way Out the Door*

  1. Wonderfully captivating as always. I don’t know how you come up with them all, but I’m glad you do!

  2. Margot Your timing is psychic. Sharon and I are in Calgary. Our oldest son got married this morning!

  3. Col

    Thanks for the link to Dahl’s Landlady – I’ve never read it.

  4. Love how you choose the smallest details and create sound, interesting, and intriguing posts. I can see how a guest book would be a fantastic misdirect.

    • Thanks, Sue – that’s very kind of you. And you’re right; a guest book can be a very effective misdirect as well as serve as a source of interest. It’s one of those things we may not pay a lot of attention to ordinarily, but can become important.

  5. Keishon

    Interesting post, Margot, as usual. If you don’t mind a TV series mention, I remember the guest book being a critical source of info in Fargo season one. It was the only source that provided the antagonist _real name_. Guestbooks do convey a lot of information about the individual and is a great resource. Maybe a overlooked resource because who would be foolish to sign it? You’d be surprised how many do unwittingly. Maybe.

    • That’s an interesting point, Keishon, and I don’t mind TV references at all. That’s one’s a terrific example of the way guest/visitors’ books can be woven into a plot. Thanks for the kind words.

  6. After reading so many mysteries that uses this in some way, I always feel like a false name is a good idea.

  7. Some wonderful examples, Margot. Indeed, the guest or visitors’ book can hold clues to many a mystery.

  8. The visitors’ book gave someone an alibi in a very strange book – mixture of crime and school story – that I featured recently, The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb. Very obscure, but I think a 1960s classic!

  9. Is the requirement for a credit card today’s version of the guest book? Times have changed … For some reason I recall a movie where an assassin actually signed in at a small hotel under his real, albeit borrowed, name, and this mistake gave the authorities … I won’t get any more specific as it might spoil it for viewers who haven’t seen the movie 🙂

    • Interesting question about the credit card, Bryan. As you say times have definitely changed. And your film example shows how different so many places are about identity and about registering in places.

  10. I hadn’t thought about it, but that requirement of signing into a book when you register at a hotel is a thing of the past. Now everything is on the computer. I am looking forward to trying Arne Dahl’s Misterioso.

    • Oh, I hope you’ll like that one, Tracy. And you’re quite right. That whole process of signing into a book just doesn’t happen any more at hotels, does it?

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