The Haunted Hotel

Is this a ghost story or is it a crime novel?

My 2015 edition of The Haunted  Hotel, first published in 1878
My 2015 edition of The Haunted 
, first published in 1878
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868, has been talked of as the first English detective novel as it established many of the ground rules of the modern genre. There is a detective, Sergeant Cuff, a country house setting, false suspects and a final twist in the plot.

Wilkie Collins wrote The Haunted Hotel ten years after The Moonstone was published. I was delighted recently when I received a copy of The Haunted Hotel as a present because 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 was known for writing sensation novels, or sensation fiction, which was at the peak of its popularity in the 1860s and 1870s. His novel, The Woman in White, published in 1860, 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.

In The Haunted Hotel, Collins makes the reader think he is going to write a novel that deals with the supernatural, as very early in the book questions are raised about being able to predict the future and being able to sense 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 that he was engaged to another woman when he proposed to her, who has subsequently released him from the engagement.

The Countess says she has been assured the other woman did not blame her for the break-up of her relationship with Lord Montbarry and that the true course of events had been explained to her. But she says that when she eventually met his former fiancĂ©e and saw the other woman’s eyes upon her she turned ‘cold from head to foot’ and experienced great fear.

Wilkie Collins is best known for his 1859 novel The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins is best known for
his 1859 novel The Woman in White
After the marriage has taken place and the couple are away on their honeymoon, the story is told from the point of view of the jilted woman, Agnes, who is perceived by all her friends as a kind, loving, good person.

Mrs Ferrari, a woman Agnes has known since childhood, then comes to 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 the news from Mrs Ferrari that the courier’s letters have stopped coming and that 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 at some stage in the future. The palace where Lord Montbarry died is converted into an hotel and his brother, Henry, buys shares in it.

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

Henry’s sister and brother both separately visit the newly converted hotel that their brother has invested in and 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, but when she discovers that Agnes is staying at the newly converted palace she moves into the hotel.

Agnes then endures a night of horror in the room where Lord Montbarry died. At this point I am still wondering if this is a ghost story, or a tale about the supernatural.

There is no detective in the novel, but Lord Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwick, sets out to find out what has taken place. He makes a discovery in the room above room number 14 that helps lead him to the truth.

A portrait of Wilkie Collins by John Everett Millais
A portrait of Wilkie Collins by
John Everett Millais
This is the room in the old palace that had been occupied by Baron Rivar, the brother of the Countess, who had enjoyed making chemical experiments.

The sinister Countess has died during the night of a ruptured blood vessel in the brain, but 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 £10000 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, discovers the truth when he visits the room above number 14 and reads a half finished play by the Countess, which helps him finally discover what happened to his brother..

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 it to crime fiction fans.

The Haunted Hotel is available from and

(The Millais portrait of Wilkie Collins hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London)


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