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The Haunted Hotel

A novel set in Venice by celebrated 19th century author Wilkie Collins

The historic Caffè Florian on St Mark's Square features in The Haunted Hotel
The historic Caffè Florian on St Mark's Square
features in The Haunted Hotel
Wilkie Collins was an English author known for writing sensation novels, or sensation fiction, which was at the peak of its popularity in the 1860s and 1870s. His 1860 novel, The Woman in White, which has been adapted for numerous theatre, film and television productions, is one of the finest examples of sensation fiction, so called because it was written to play on the nerves and excite the senses of the reader.

However, his 1868 novel, The Moonstone, has been talked of as the first English detective novel as it established many of the ground rules of the genre. There is a detective, Sergeant Cuff, a country house setting, false suspects and a final twist in the plot.

So when I received a copy of The Haunted Hotel as a present recently I wondered how closely it would resemble a detective story, which is my favourite genre. I was also intrigued because a lot of the story takes place in Venice, a city that I love.  Collins wrote The Haunted Hotel in 1878, ten years after The Moonstone was published.

Collins lived in Italy for nearly two years with his family when he was in his early teens. He also toured Italy with his friend, the novelist Charles Dickens, in 1853 and he returned to Italy with different friends for several visits during the 1860s and 1870s.

In The Haunted Hotel, the reader might think that the novel will deal with the supernatural, as very early in the book questions are raised about being able to predict the future and about sensing evil in a room.

The story begins with a London doctor being visited by a foreign Countess who is desperate for him to tell her whether she is evil, or insane. She is about to marry a nobleman, Lord Montbarry, but has discovered he was engaged to another woman when he proposed to her. However, the lady has subsequently released him from the engagement.

Wilkie Collins was a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens
Wilkie Collins was a contemporary
and friend of Charles Dickens 
The Countess says she has been assured the other woman did not blame her for the broken engagement as the true course of events had been explained to her. But she says that when she eventually met Lord Montbarry’s former fiancée and was aware of the other woman’s eyes upon her, she turned ‘cold from head to foot’ and experienced great fear.

After the marriage has taken place and the couple have gone away on their honeymoon, the story is told from the point of view of the jilted woman, Agnes. She is perceived by all her friends to be a good, kind and loving person, in contrast with the descriptions of the sinister Countess, with her strange behaviour and white face and extremely dark eyes.

Mrs Ferrari, a woman Agnes has known since childhood, comes to ask her for help. She is married to an Italian courier who desperately needs work. She asks Agnes to recommend her husband to a newly-married couple who are about to tour Italy. When Agnes discovers the couple are Lord and Lady Montbarry, she is reluctant to intervene, but out of sympathy for the woman she eventually agrees that the courier can mention her name to help him secure the job.

Mr Ferrari accompanies the newlyweds to Italy while Agnes goes to stay with friends in Ireland.

On her return to London she receives news from Mrs Ferrari that the courier’s letters have stopped coming and no one has seen or heard of him for weeks.

Then Mrs Ferrari receives a bizarre letter. It contains a £1000 note and a piece of paper with the words: ‘To console you for the loss of your husband.’

A few days later, Lord Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwick, calls to see Agnes to break the news to her that Lord Montbarry has died of bronchitis in the Venetian palazzo where he had been staying.

Collins makes it seem inevitable that all the protagonists will meet again in Venice in the future. The palace where Lord Montbarry died is converted into a hotel and his brother, Henry, buys shares in it.

Later, friends of Agnes invite her on a trip to Italy with them and they plan to visit Venice.

A recent edition of The Haunted Hotel by Collins Vintage
A recent edition of The Haunted
by Collins Vintage 
Henry and his sister and brother all visit the newly-converted hotel that he has invested in on separate occasions. They all feel ill after staying in the best room, number 14, where they smell a foul odour. It turns out to be the room where Lord Montbarry died.

Events conspire to have Agnes allocated to that room when she arrives at the hotel with her party. The sinister Countess, who also happens to have returned to Venice, is staying at the Hotel Danieli on the Riva Schiavoni, but when she discovers that Agnes is staying at the newly converted palace she moves into the hotel herself.

Agnes then endures a night of horror in the room where Lord Montbarry died. At this point, I was still wondering if this is a ghost story, or a crime novel.

There is no detective in the novel, but Lord Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwick, sets out to discover what has taken place. He visits the room above number 14 and makes a grisly discovery. This is the room in the old palace that had been occupied by Baron Rivar, the brother of the Countess, who enjoyed making chemical experiments.

The sinister Countess is then found dead, having suffered a ruptured blood vessel in the brain. She leaves an unfinished play that provides Henry with clues to the fate of the missing Italian courier.

My conclusion is that Wilkie Collins did write a crime story after all. There was the sudden death of Lord Montbarry, whose life was insured for £10,000 pounds in favour of his widow, the sinister Countess. The insurance company investigates the death but can find nothing to suggest it was not natural causes. The Italian courier disappears mysteriously. The amateur detective, Henry Westwick, uncovers the secret of the room above number 14 and, using the unfinished play written by the Countess, finally discovers what happened to his brother.

A good half of the book takes place in Venice, which is sensitively evoked by Collins, which means it can also be described as a crime novel set in Italy - and almost certainly one of the earliest written.

We know Collins was in Italy with friends in the 1860s and 1870s and may have stayed in Venice in a hotel converted from an old palazzo. Many Victorians visited Venice expecting to see the beauty and the mystery that Lord Byron had described in his letters and poetry 50 years before.

In one scene a character leaves the hotel ‘by the lanes that led to the square of St Mark’. Revived by the night breeze he walked into the square avoiding the crowds under the colonnades. He ‘walked slowly up and down the noble open space of the square, bathed in the light of the rising moon.’ He is accosted by the sinister Countess, dressed all in black, who demands that he take her for a drink into Caffè Florian on the right side of the square as you look in the direction of St Mark’s.

The coffee house opened in 1720 and continued to serve coffee and fine wines during the fall of the Republic of Venice and the periods of French and then Austrian rule. It was the only meeting place that admitted women, which is why Casanova used it as a hunting ground for female company.

When Collins visited Venice, the décor of Caffè Florian would have been very similar to how it looks today and readers who have been there on visits to Venice will be able to imagine the scene that takes place in the cafe.

The Haunted Hotel has many of the ingredients of a crime novel and the truth is not revealed until the end of the novel in the tradition of the genre. I can definitely recommend the book to crime fiction fans and particularly to people who love mystery novels set in Italy.

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