Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth Cameron

Review by Chris Redmond

This excellent novel by veteran author Kenneth Cameron has as its protagonist — of all improbable people — Louisa Conan Doyle, the little-known first wife of Arthur Conan Doyle. The premise is that she is accompanying ACD on his well-known lecture tour of North America, but is laid up in a New York hotel with a sprained ankle while ACD goes west without her. In fact, when he made that tour, which I described in detail in my book Welcome to America, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, Louisa stayed home in England. Cameron also moves the tour from the fall of 1894 to the winter of 1896, so that he can use Theodore Roosevelt, New York police commissioner 1895-97, as a (minor) character. These historical changes cease to be troubling within a few pages, as the story's momentum builds.

Louisa Conan Doyle as we have known her until now is a somewhat improbable figure as a detective or even a heroine. She is vaguely remembered as a fluffy little blonde woman, the wife of ACD's youth and mother of his first two children, who fell ill with what proved to be tuberculosis, and languished in the background for a decade before her death in 1906. The revisionist biographical work Out of the Shadows (2004) by Georgina Doyle says a little more, viewing her through the eyes of family tradition and the recollections of the oldest child, Mary Conan Doyle. And it is worth remembering that Mary Morstan of The Sign of the Four, who was evidently modeled on Louisa, is the object of admiration from Sherlock Holmes himself, who said she "might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing."

In this convincing (but, we have to remember, fictional) story she gets to do "such work" in New York, as Cameron reimagines history. She becomes aware of a gruesome murder in the Bowery neighbourhood, then of some odd goings-on in the hotel where she is a prisoner of her injury, then another murder, then more odd goings-on. Soon she is devoting her full efforts — no small ingenuity, no small courage — to finding out what happened and, in the end, confronting the evil face to face. Her allies, none of them fully reliable, include a police officer under Roosevelt's administration, as well as a newspaper reporter clearly meant to be reminiscent of the historical Nelly Bly. (Bly herself appears in some of Carole Nelson Douglas's Irene Adler novels; Cameron may have felt that appropriating her as Louisa's companion would have been going too far.)

I am among the class of reader who does not want to hear very much about gruesome death and mutilation, and especially about emulators of Jack the Ripper. The crimes Louisa ends up investigating are certainly of that sort, and they make unpleasant reading — as does Louisa's climactic encounter near the book's end. But Cameron handles the dreadful things well, almost with understatement, so that they are genuinely horrible although he does not dwell on them too long or too lovingly.

Throughout, one of the strengths of this narrative is the way startling events and the oddities of New York life are seen through the eyes of a calm and highly intelligent Louisa (albeit one who spends a good deal of her time vomiting). The author has evidently done a great deal of research into the New York of 1896. I am more sceptical of his attempt to design a multi-storey hotel with the special features that figure in his plot as it unfolds, but the emotional impact is right whether or not his calculations and plans work exactly.

A particularly appealing part of the way Cameron brings Arthur and Louisa Conan Doyle to life is his repeated references to their happy and healthy sex life. When they are apart, they unabashedly miss each other in their beds. Biographers of the real Arthur and Louisa understandably do not dwell on this aspect of things, except to speculate that in Louisa's last invalid years she was probably unfit for a complete married life. It is a delight to see things imagined more robustly.