Saturday, 13 October 2012

"Winter at Death's Hotel," by Kenneth Cameron

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I had a very complicated and confusing relationship with this book.  This novel is a slow burn - well, it was for me - and it took me quite a while to get into it; even as late as about page 200 I was considering giving up on the book and reading something else.  It is testament to how much I liked the central idea that I stuck with it.  It was round about that magic 200 page mark that I finally got hooked, and I read the last part of Cameron's novel pretty quickly.  I was then quite unsettled by the denouement and, although admiring of the skill with which it was written, I felt quite conflicted over whether I was glad that I read it.

I'm going to do something which I have never done before, as an experiment.  This review will be in 2 parts.  The first part will be spoiler free - in the teaser paragraph next I'll write a bit about how the plot unfolds at the start of the novel, but I'll try not to give away too much (as usual).  I'll write a spoiler free bit about the book, but in the second section - don't worry, I'll give you plenty of warning - I want to try to rationalise why the book unsettled me so much when I finished it last night.  If you think you might read this book, then please don't read the spoiler section.  I will try not to say outright who the killer was but, in explaining why I found it disturbing, I will need to give away significant plot developments at the end of the novel.

Kenneth Cameron's novel is set in New York in 1896.  Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle stays at New Britannic Hotel with his wife, Louisa, as he embarks on a lecture tour of America.  Whilst in the hotel, Louisa reads a paper which talks in oblique terms about the gruesome murder of a woman, and Louisa believes that she recognises the woman in the sketch accompanying the article - however, Arthur doesn't want her to become involved and finds her interest in the murder unseemly for a respectable woman.  Then Louisa has an accident while they are leaving the hotel and badly sprains her ankle; on her insistence, Arthur continues the tour without her, leaving her in New York and able to pursue her fascination with the murder in his absence.

Louisa's discovery of New York and of herself is particularly well done; she is respectable, happy in her marriage, misses her children, and yet finds within herself a spark of rebellion and independence.  Sometimes when I am reading a female character will resonate very strongly with me, and I felt this with her.  It isn't so much that I put myself in their place; more that I can imagine wanting to play the part if it was adapted for film or television (I can't act, but I wish I could).  I put myself in their place as someone plotting out how they would play a part.  She is the strongest and most memorable in a panoply of very strong female characters and it was primarily her character that kept me reading.  It's an excellent exercise in literary transvestism on Cameron's part - I can honestly say that I can't think of a more convincing example of a male author writing as a female protagonist.

The main strengths on this book are the two elements that made me want to read the book in the first place: the idea of Conan Doyle's wife as detective, and the period New York setting.  In some superficial ways - primarily the evocation of old New York - this book reminded me of Jed Rubenfeld's "The Interpretation of Murder."    Louisa at first finds New York to be exciting and vibrant, but as Cameron's plot unfolds she finds that, in many ways, the city is as hidebound by social convention as London.  In depicting New York, Cameron also brings in historical figures from the time: Louisa and Arthur themselves; Teddy Roosevelt, then Commissioner Roosevelt, plays a significant part in the narrative, as does novelist Marie Corelli, actor Henry Irving and feminist Victoria Woodhull (in a cameo).  I'd never heard of Victoria Woodhull but she sounds fascinating (she was apparently the first woman to put herself forward for the American presidency at a time when women weren't even able to vote).  I found this historical backdrop engrossing and, as I visited New York a few years ago, I am very partial to books that are set there.

Despite all the things that I like about this novel, I am confiicted over whether I would recommend this novel to another person.  And this is why.....

***************** NOW THE BIT WITH SPOILERS *******************

For a crime novel, this novel is quite unconventional in two or three significant ways.  The combination of these unexpected developments deeply unsettled me.  

Firstly and most significantly, the fate of Louisa.  I already wrote earlier in this post how strongly I felt for this characters and how much I associated myself with her.  She is the heroine of the novel: the character with whom you spend the most time; the one whose internal processes you follow and the one with whom Cameron asks you to sympathise.  It is conventional in many crime novels for the hero or heroine to leave the narrative comparatively unscathed - maybe not totally, but mostly, and with the promise of recovery.  This is really not true of Louisa.  She is brutalised by the murderer and sexually assaulted in a way that Cameron writes about uncompromisingly.  It is very shocking and disturbing precisely because Cameron has done such a good job of making you care for her fate, and even associate yourself with her.  She doesn't die, but the final image - of Arthur getting back to New York, embracing her, and her screaming and trying to fight off his touch - leaves you with the image of a woman who has been completely traumatised and broken by her ordeal.  I was left with the very real feeling that this was an experience from which she would not recover.

Secondly, it is also conventional in a crime novel for evil to be punished and order restored.  In this novel the murderer, although injured, escapes and flees across New York.  So Cameron ends the novel with a traumatised woman and no sense of - and I use this word reluctantly, as it seems a bit cliched - closure.  Related to this, thirdly, because the criminal is not caught and questioned by the police, he is never ascribed any motivation for his actions.  The open-endedness of this - no motivation besides homicidal madness with a side order of sexual gratification, no retribution - makes the violence random and somehow unrooted in specifics.  It's almost as if the ending leaves the murderer as a free-floating bogeyman, an avatar of male hatred, who might turn up if you look into a mirror and say his name three times.

This all takes place in a time period that was more socially repressive for women than today's society, and the way Cameron uses this backdrop adds to my unease.  The murders are very gruesome and the victims are mutilated, and this violence is very specifically gendered: all the victims are women.  This is largely what drives Louisa; she feels a solidarity with the victims as a woman, and is determined that their deaths will not be forgotten or ignored.  The brutalised Louisa is rescued by women and finds solace in their protection, and there is a strong feeling in this novel of men and women working against each other rather than with each other.  Victoria Woodhull argues in her cameo appearance that the "Bowery Butcher" is a hero to men; that in violently subjugating women he is doing what most men wish to do.  That is a deeply unsettling idea - which Louisa refuses to believe at the time, and I don't believe it either - but the lack of resolution or motivation, allowing the murderer to disappear anonymously in the morass of men in New York, lends itself to the idea of the violent murderer as an everyman/anyman archetype.

I hope my rationalisation of why I felt so disturbed by this novel makes some sense.  It is a very well-written book with strong characters, but the extremity of the sexual violence inflicted on Louisa in particular left me with a strong distaste.  I think that means - much in the same way as there are some actors that I dislike because they play repellent characters rather too well and, in doing so, are tainted by it - that Kenneth Cameron does what he sets out to do too well, if such a thing were possible.

I'm very aware that my response to this novel is personal and is proscribed by my gender.  I would be very interested to hear if there are any male readers who have read this, and how they responded to it.


  1. I had better not read the spoilers as I have added the book to my "to read" list. I am very intrigued at your approach to writing this review.

    Have you read Mr Brigg's Hat by Kate Colquhoun? I bought this book alongside No Rest for the Dead by (many authors). I mention the Mr Brigg's Hat as its a Victorian murder mystery based on Britain's First Railway Murder. I mention the second only because I bought the two books at the same time and one of the authors of No Rest for the Dead Book is Jeffery Deaver

    PS Have you thought about posting a pic of your actual bookshelf as your blog backdrop?

  2. I don't think that the structure of this review will be a regular thing - just in the case of this particular book, I wanted to explain why it disturbed me and I couldn't do that without giving spoilers.

    I haven't heard of Mr Brigg's Hat, so I will keep an eye out for it - although I prefer my crime as fiction and not based on a real event. That normally creeps me out too much. I haven't heard of No Rest for the Dead. Is it short stories by different people, or a novel with each chapter written by a different author like Jeffery Deaver has done before with other writers?

    I've thought of using my own bookshelves, but they are usually a bit messy - and I already have a little picture as my profile picture. I did tidy them recently, so I might try it out today.

  3. Yes No rest for the Dead is one story written by many authors. Each wrote a chapter so continued the story although I think JD might have written two chapters (the first chapter and the last?). A very interesting concept.