It’s almost as if the universe designed hotels for storytelling. Floor after floor, room after room, each one numbered like chapters. Each one populated, for some random amount of time, with people who are going somewhere, wanting something, hoping for something, escaping something. 

They’re private. They have weird keys that only work sometimes. They have little soaps, and individual shower caps, and cranky heating systems with diabolical minds of their own. Strangers will bring you too-expensive food with tiny jars of honey and a lone rose tucked into a little glass vase. There are safes in your closet with codes you can make up. 

It’s closed door after closed door after closed door. And a hotel is an author’s bonanza. As Vicki Baum herself wrote in Grand Hotel, “Prosperity and disaster may be separated by no more than the thickness of a wall.”

It’s where Stephen King had Jack Torrance typing: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

It’s where Maxim de Winter met his second wife. 

(It’s where Kay Thompson’s always-confident Eloise asked room service for “one roast-beef bone, one raisin and seven spoons.”) 

It’s where Baum had prima ballerina Grusinskaya say: “I want to be alone.”

And where world-weary Dr. Otternschlag said: “People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.” 

Authors and readers know — that’s simply not true. Tell me you don’t think of Psycho every time you open the shower curtain in a motel.

I miss hotels. I should be on book tour for The First to Lie right now, trying to remember my room number and wishing the people next door would turn down the TV. But we can all check in via books — here are some places you might try.

The Shining
by Stephen King

So if you go into a hotel room and it says “redrum” on the wall, do I need to tell you what to do? Stephen King’s 1977 classic thriller The Shining changed the way we all look at hotels, especially ones far from civilization, and snowed in, and um, occupied by ghosts (or other such things), like the supposed real-life haunting of the Stanley Hotel in Colorado. Jack does not say “here’s Johnny” in the book. But who cares. Jack Torrance is the struggling author and, with his family, is the winter caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel. Let’s just say, spoiler alert, he does not get over the writer’s block.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop


A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles

Not that it’s how you necessarily gauge anything, but Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow has 22,079 ratings on Amazon. Also, O, The Oprah Magazine called it the ultimate quarantine read. In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced — because of a poem he wrote! — to house arrest in the Metropole, a hotel across the street from the Kremlin. If you have not read this book, lucky you. Grab it right now. It is life-changing, inspirational and full of purpose. Oprah is right. And people make pilgrimages to the real hotel to immerse themselves in this captivating world.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop


Hotel
by Arthur Hailey

There was that chunk of time, in my formative reading years, when I discovered the novels of Sidney Sheldon and Arthur Hailey. Such terrific storytellers. It’s so funny to think I was 16 when I read Hailey’s classic Hotel, and I still remember that white cover so perfectly. I have no idea now what it’s about, I have to admit, except the owner of the New Orleans hotel has to raise money to save it or something, and there’s an heiress, and a duchess, and a thief. So incredibly glamorous, and so cool and knowledgeable about what happens in the back of the house. I read it nonstop. Looking at it again for this article, I realize I must have had no idea what “point of view” meant back then, which allowed me to happily devour this 1959 classic.

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Above the Bay of Angels
by Rhys Bowen

Did you know the Excelsior Regina hotel was built just so Queen Victoria could visit the south of France? The brilliant Rhys Bowen’s Above the Bay of Angels reveals the magnificent place built in 1897 on a hillside in Nice. Victoria arrived on a private train with her whole court, including her cooks and a regiment of Highland Pipers, and then said, “I don’t want anybody to know I’m the queen!” If that made you smile, welcome to Bowen’s wit and impeccable storytelling. In Bowen’s book, the heroine is one of the Queen’s chefs. And someone gets poisoned. Oops.

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The Sun Down Motel
by Simone St. James

Double timeline, double protagonists. And as one of them says, upon seeing it: The Sun Down only looked empty. But it wasn’t. And then: It was often so quiet that an observer would think nothing ever happened here. (Where have we heard that recently? Got to love an author who embraces her lineage.) Simone St. James’s new book is truly creepy. Unsettling. And gorgeously written. “What if everything I’ve seen, everything I think, is true?” says one character. I wondered about that long afterward. (It’s a place where you can check out, but you can never leave.) Did I say it’s creepy? And chilling and suspenseful, and best read with the lights on.

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Psycho
by Robert Bloch

Let me just tell you what’s on the back cover of Robert Bloch’s Psycho. “It was a dark and stormy night when Mary Crane glimpsed the unlit neon sign announcing the vacancy of the Bates Motel. Exhausted, lost, and at the end of her rope, she was eager for a hot shower and a bed for the night. Her room was musty but clean, and the plumbing worked. Norman Bates, the manager, seemed nice, if a little odd … ” Did you just burst out laughing? As I wrote this article, I realized I’d never actually read the 1959 book. So I started, and it is irresistible. Fascinating thing: it’s based on a true story. Which seems to presage The Silence of the Lambs.

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At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie
and A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson

Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel takes Miss Marple to London, to the doppelgänger of Brown’s, one of Christie’s favorite hotels, which, I’m told, still offers tea. Well, maybe not these days. Anyway, Bertram’s is proof that people are rarely what they seem, and in Agatha Christie’s hotels especially. And speaking of, The Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate, where the Queen of Mystery was found to have spent her “missing” weeks, is the setting for Andrew Wilson’s brilliant A Talent For Murder. Maybe read these two together.

At Bertram’s Hotel
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A Talent for Murder
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The Hotel Neversink
by Adam O’Fallon-Price

The Hotel Neversink won the Edgar for Best Novel of 2020. For structure and construction alone, this book is a treasure, each puzzle piece building the story, just like the pieces of a hotel and its fascinating history. Each chapter is a person’s name, and chapter in the life of the Sikorsky family, proprietors of this unique place. (I’m trying to figure out how to describe this. Which should tell you something. It’s that good.) Like its predecessor Grand Hotel, it’s full of the past and full of secrets, and Adam O’Fallon-Price knows how to wrap you in a gorgeous mystery.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop


I miss hotels. But until we’re back to real life, there’s also John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire, and Fiona Davis’ The Chelsea Girls. And the key to your reading enjoyment will never get demagnetized.