The grand hotels of yesteryear may be gone, but their old-world hospitality and charm continue to inspire intriguing storytelling. It’s 1908 and 16-year-old Charlotte O’Dell takes a waitressing job at the St. Alice Hotel – “a jewel in the wilderness” on B.C.’s Harrison Lake – in order to make enough money to return to school and become a pharmacist. Her fiery temperament matches her fiery red hair, making her a welcome addition for guests and co-workers alike, although her boss, Mrs. Bannerman, and the kitchen maid, Glenys, are not as enamoured. Charlotte becomes particularly close with one of the hotel’s summer guests, Mr. Doyle, and takes it upon herself to cure him of a supposed bout of malaria and help fix his broken relationship with a young family friend. When Mr. Doyle is found dead in his hotel room, Charlotte becomes the prime suspect.
The strengths of Murder at the St. Alice are found in the setting and the cast of characters, both of which quickly draw readers in. “The Bath House was a ten minute walk along a path that followed the lakeshore, winding between lush ferns and towering cedar trees. Guests in white bathrobes strolled past me in the sunshine,” Charlotte narrates. “It was a two story wooden structure built on piles, with a plunge pool and lots of vapour baths and ordinary baths with exotic names like Hades and Purgatory and Vesuvius.” Charlotte is determined to make a difference: she organizes a suffragette march through town, personally seeks out Mr. Doyle’s estranged friend during a trip home to Victoria, and concocts herbal teas to soothe the woes of guests and co-workers – all of which unfortunately works against her. Most of the characters – and there are many – are well drawn and give a real feel for what it may have been like to frequent a grand hotel at the turn of the century.
B.C. author Becky Citra (The Griffin of Darkwood) introduces the murder plot late in the novel – a bold move considering the title. Yet she does so with a deft hand, waiting until the very moment when readers are swept up in the gaiety that is the St. Alice. Suddenly, summer frivolity gives way to police interrogations, suspicions, and double-crosses. While the sanitarium and pleasure resort’s hot sulphur springs can cure everything from paralysis to mercury poisoning, they can’t alleviate the nastiness of the outside world, nor prevent it from seeping in.
Though parts of the novel come across as confusing and/or forced (such as the storyline surrounding George, the bathhouse manager), Citra advances the plot with short chapters that comprise enough twists and surprise revelations to keep readers hooked and guessing until the end.