I’m stretching the definition of crime fiction by including this book but I have to admit to a major weakness for ghost stories. I’ve been devouring this winter the vintage Pan ghost story collections that I’d ordered online and they’ve been a real treat. A ghost story is perfectly suited to the shorter form. Plot strands don’t need to be tied up. In fact, as readers, we want to be left scratching our heads and of course the scarier the story is, the better.
However, while browsing in Waterstones in Boston, Lincolnshire, I came across a reissue of Wilkie Collins’s The Haunted Hotel. It has a satisfyingly retro cover but, as I began to read it, I realised I’d forgotten what a good writer Collins is. I read both The Moonstone and The Woman in White as a teenager and it’s a shame that I left my reading of this writer with his two most famous books. The Haunted Hotel was first published in 1889 but there’s an Edwardian feel to the story. It opens with an eminent London physician receiving a visit from the Countess Narona who asks for his professional opinion as to whether she is evil or insane. She reveals that she is to be married to Lord Montbarry who has jilted his intended bride, Agnes Lockwood. A chance meeting between Agnes and the Countess has convinced the triumphant bride-to-be that Agnes will be her downfall in Venice.
The plot then moves inexorably towards how Agnes, the Countess and various members of the Montbarry end up in a haunted hotel in Venice. The book is full of gothic elements: a missing servant, a veiled mourner and a body found in a fireplace. Somehow Collins manages to make it all believable and, as usual, the romance in the book has a realistic touch to it.
There’s another, short, ghost story at the end of the book, The Dream Woman. This was entertaining enough, but the real jewel is the story of the haunted hotel. A perfect winter read.