Marlborough mystery

Smith Street hotel the setting for spectres and suspense


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The list of hotels famous enough to make their way into legend is a short one. There's the Chelsea, a hippy retreat in Manhattan; the Nacional, former headquarters to the U.S. Mafia in Havana; and the Savoy in London, where a cup of tea will set you back $10.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/02/2014 (3214 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The list of hotels famous enough to make their way into legend is a short one. There’s the Chelsea, a hippy retreat in Manhattan; the Nacional, former headquarters to the U.S. Mafia in Havana; and the Savoy in London, where a cup of tea will set you back $10.

Add to that the creepy contenders in fiction: Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, and Hitchcock’s low-end Bates Motel.

Then there’s the Marlborough in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg Free Press files The Marlborough Hotel, as seen in 1962.

The Marlborough? Setting aside the Fort Garry Hotel — a more likely contender with its famously haunted suite of rooms — first-time Winnipeg novelist Maureen Flynn has a go at immortalizing the elegant century-old hotel as the supernatural setting for her crime-cum-romance novel Buckle My Shoe.

Flynn has uncovered a lot of lore not generally known about the grand lady of Smith Street. Opened in 1914 and once favoured by Winston Churchill, the hotel was alleged to be home to a mysterious woman who played a white piano at midnight. Among other rumours, the hotel’s basement was a place where departed souls gathered and hid from the living.

The elegant edifice serves as both sinister setting and charming character for a story told in two eras, switching back and forth between the Winnipeg of 1943 and that of 2013. We catch our first glimpse of room 503 in a city full of bustling streetcars and loitering soldiers, and it’s here that a beguiling and guileless teenager was lured to her death. Changing focus to present-day Winnipeg, room 503 is now home to a troubled former homicide detective, one Steve Ascot, who makes his living as the head of hotel security.

Something invades Ascot’s dreams, switches his radio to the nostalgia station and wakes him up in a cold sweat. Something haunts the elevator and frightens the staff. That something is gradually revealed as Edith, the teenager brutally murdered in Ascot’s room. It seems her killer stole the brand new shoes she was wearing, and she wants them back — along with a little justice.

The ambitious young woman who owns the hotel becomes its second murder victim. Ascot refuses to believe the woman — found dead in the elevator, her throat pierced by a shard of glass from its mysteriously shattered mirrors — was killed by a vengeful ghost.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files The Marlborough Hotel as seen today.

After a satisfying number of twists and turns in the plot, plus the help of a well-meaning hotel clerk who can’t mind her own business, Ascot proves he has what it takes to resume a promising career with the police.

Flynn, a freelance writer and columnist published in the Finding Your Happiness edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul, tells a mighty good story. Buckle My Shoe is a straightforward narrative told in declarative sentences with no pretense of the rich, sophisticated overlay one finds in the best, most seasoned detective writers, such as Americans John Sanford or Sue Grafton or any of the Scandinavian noir writers like Jo Nesbo or Stieg Larsson.

But as Walt Disney famously said, the writer’s job is always the same: to restore order out of chaos. In Buckle My Shoe, Flynn had created engaging chaos and untangled it with considerable flair.


Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster.

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Updated on Saturday, February 8, 2014 8:51 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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