When real and fictional police and PIs investigate, they try to get as much information as they can. Of course, they talk to family members, friends and co-workers, but even that doesn’t always fill in the proverbial blank.
A good detective can tell you that the real people to talk to when there’s a disappearance or a murder are people like restaurant servers and hotel chambermaids. And that makes sense if you think about it. A spouse or partner might not know about that ‘special guest’ in the hotel room, but the chambermaid will. The boss might not know how much someone drinks at lunch, but the server will. That’s part of the reason that the police work as hard as they do to trace a victim’s last days. Talking to people like porters, chambermaids, servers and so on can yield valuable clues.
Agatha Christie uses that plot point in several of her stories. For example, in Evil Under the Sun, we are introduced to Gladys Narracott. She works as a chambermaid at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. She gets involved in a murder investigation when one of the guests, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered. The first suspect is, as you’d imagine, the victim’s husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall. But he has an alibi for the time of the murder, and Gladys can corroborate that alibi. So, the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the murderer is. And he discovers that Gladys has some useful information and insight to offer, just from what she’s learned about the guests as she’s tended their rooms.
In Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro are hired to investigate the disappearance of four-year-old Amanda McCready. The child’s mother, Helene, claims that she doesn’t know who would have wanted to take her daughter; she also says, naturally enough, that she didn’t have anything to do with the abduction. But Kenzie and Gennaro follow up on every possibility, one of which is that Amanda was taken by someone Helene knows. There’s also the chance that Helene herself is responsible for whatever happened to Amanda. So, Kenzie and Gennaro trace Helene’s movements, and do what they can to find out about her background. And some of that information comes from the Filmore Tap, a very tough, seedy bar in Dorchester (Massachusetts). It turns out that Helene’s known there; and, although no-one says very much about her, the bartenders and owner know more than they want to tell.
Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Said Cheese takes place, as many of her novels do, in the small town of Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ A mysterious woman has moved into town, and is staying at the New Pickax Hotel. No-one knows anything about her, although there’s plenty of speculation and gossip. One day, a bouquet of flowers arrives for this enigmatic guest. Part-time housekeeping aide Anna Marie Toms is on duty when the flowers arrive, and prepares to take them to the new hotel guest. Then, a bomb hidden in the bouquet goes off, killing Anna Marie. Shortly afterwards, the mysterious woman goes missing. Local journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth, starts asking questions, and he and local police chief Andrew Brodie find out who the woman is, and who the killer is.
Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home introduces us to the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit, and to Detective Inspector (DI) Dushan Zigic and Detective Sergeant (DS) Mel Ferreira. They’re called in to investigate when the body of an unknown man is found in a shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. The man is identified as an Estonian named Jaan Stepulov, who was apparently in the UK as a migrant worker. It’s often not easy to find out information about migrant workers, since they don’t generally ‘put down roots’ or have close connections with locals. But Zigic and Ferreira get to work. One of their stops is Maloney’s, a pub right near the local bus station. It’s frequented by people just like Stepulov, and Ferreira finds that one bartender in particular has some very valuable information about the case.
And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police is faced with a challenging case. Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, is suspected of corruption, arrested, and held to face charges. He’s housed in a Shanghai hotel, rather than in the local prison, because of his status. One morning, he is found hanged in his room. The official theory is that he committed suicide, rather than face the shame of corruption charges. And Chen is expected to ‘rubber stamp’ that theory. But some things don’t add up. So, Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, look into the case more carefully. They’re going to have to move quietly and delicately, since this is no ordinary death. But in the end, they find out the truth. And some of the clues they need come from an interview with one of the hotel attendants, Jun, whose information proves quite useful.
And that’s the thing about people such as room attendants, chambermaids, bartenders and other servers. We may not notice them, but they know a lot. And their help can be invaluable when the police are on a case.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Al Dubin and Henry Warren’s Lulu’s Back in Town.