A skilled author can create a scene that takes place in any number of settings. But some places just seem to lend themselves especially well to a solid crime-fictional scene. One of those places is arguably the lobby. It makes sense, too, if you think about it. All sorts of people come through a lobby. Some work there, some don’t. Some are there for just a few minutes, while others are there for a long time. And if a lobby’s big enough and busy enough, it’s very hard to keep track of who’s there and who isn’t. So lobbies allow for an interesting kind of anonymity, too.
Lobbies also give people an important sense of what a place is like (upmarket, seedy, or something else). So they make for effective ways for authors to create context without getting too wordy. It’s not surprising, then, that we see a lot of crime-fictional scenes that play out in lobbies. Here are just a few; I’m sure you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.
Agatha Christie used lobbies and lounges in several of her stories. One of them is At Bertram’s Hotel. In that novel, Miss Marple travels to London, to Bertram’s Hotel. The place has special meaning for her, since she stayed there as a young person. During this stay, she finds that the beautiful hotel has been a façade for some very underhanded doings, including murder. In this story, Christie uses the big central lounge as a very convenient place for Miss Marple to overhear a conversation that will end up mattering as the story goes on. But she also uses the Lounge to give readers a sense of the hotel:
‘Inside, if this was the first time you had visited Bertram’s, you felt, almost with alarm, that you had reentered a vanished world. Time had gone back. You were in Edwardian England once more.’
Christie then goes on to show the way the lounge reflects that era. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train and of Taken at the Flood.
Ian Hamilton’s The Water Rat of Wanchai introduces readers to forensic accountant Ava Lee, whose specialty is tracing money for people who’ve been bilked and are desperate to get their money back. In this novel, Lee is working on behalf of Andrew Tam, whose financial services company has been swindled out of almost five million dollars. Lee gets to work on the case, and follows the trail to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Georgetown, Guayana, and the British Virgin Islands. Throughout her search, Lee gets information from several different people, some of whom can be trusted and some of whom cannot. She often finds that lobbies – especially hotel lobbies – are good places to meet her contacts. They’re public, so they afford a certain amount of safety. They’re convenient (Most people can find the lobby of a big hotel). And they’re anonymous enough so that people can have private conversations without attracting a lot of attention.
Steve Hamilton’s series features former Detroit police officer Alex McKnight, who now lives in one of a group of cabins his father left him. He rents the others to tourists who want to hunt, fish, and enjoy winter sports on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In Ice Run, McKnight makes plans to meet his new love interest, Natalie Reynaud, at the Ojibway Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie (Soo), right near the US/Canada border. When he arrives, he has an odd encounter in the hotel lobby with an elderly man wearing a homburg hat. He doesn’t think much of it at the time; but later, he finds that the same man has had a bottle of good champagne delivered to the table where he and Reynaud are dining. Then, when they get to his hotel room, the homburg had, filled with snow and ice, is waiting for them. So is a cryptic note. When the man is later found dead, McKnight feels an obligation to find out why, and is drawn into a very complex case.
Arthur Bryant and John May, who feature in Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit series, have a strange, lobby-related case to solve in Seventy-Seven Clocks. In one plot thread of that novel, attorney Maximillian Jacob is in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel, reading a newspaper. He falls asleep as he’s reading, and no-one pays much attention, as that’s nothing unusual. A few hours later, one of the staff tries to waken him, only to find that he’s dead. At first it looks as though he might have had a heart attack; but soon enough, it’s shown that he was bitten by a poisonous snake and killed by its venom. Bryant and May have seen some odd cases in their time, and this one is no exception. It will require them not just to find out how someone got a snake into the hotel lobby, but also to find out how it’s related to a vandalism incident at the National Gallery.
You may be thinking that hotel lobbies and lounges are prone to this sort of conflict and danger, but other places aren’t. You’d be wrong. Just consider Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Science fiction writer Zack Walker and his family have recently moved from the city to a suburban development called Valley Forest Estates. The idea is that the family will be safer there than in the city. It’s no small matter, too, that the difference in living costs will mean that Walker can write full-time. It’s not long before this perfect plan starts to go wrong. Walker begins to notice that there are several repairs that need to be made to his new home. He goes to the Valley Forest sales office to complain and arrange for repairs, only to find himself an unwitting witness to a loud argument. While he’s in the lobby/reception area, he sees a dispute between one of the Valley Forest executives, and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Spender and his group have been trying to close down the development for ecological reasons, and he is not going to just ‘go away.’ The argument makes everything very awkward, but Walker doesn’t think much about it – until later, when he finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek. He ends up getting drawn into a case that’s a lot more dangerous than city life was…
As you can see, lobbies and lounges are really quite useful places if you’re a crime writer. They can be dangerous, but they certainly afford all the contact, conflict and encounters you’d want. They’ve very good places for people-watching, too. Trust me.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I Don’t Want to be Alone.