Murder at the St. Alice
by Becky Citra
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95 ISBN 9-781550-509625
Do you know a teen who would enjoy British Columbia-based historical fiction and a mystery in the same book? Then the novel Murder at the St. Alice by prolific YA writer Becky Citra is worth a look. BC’s Citra has written more than twenty books, including her well-received The Griffin of Darkwood, and a time travel series. In her latest novel she takes readers back to 1908, where “almost sixteen”-year-old Charlotte O’Dell has just been hired as a dining room waitress at the swank St. Alice Hotel, “a jewel in the wilderness, nestled on the shores of beautiful Harrison Lake”.
Charlotte’s home is in Victoria, where she lives with Great Aunt Ginny, who’s taught the girl about medicinal plants and inspired Charlotte’s desire to one day become a pharmacist. First, however, Charlotte must earn money for school, and this brings her under the scrutiny of Mrs. Bannerman, St. Alice’s stern housekeeper. Mrs. Bannerman informs Charlotte that “The annex behind the hotel, where the young men live, is strictly out of bounds,” and “there is to be no fraternizing with the guests”. (One can guess where this is going!)
When I’m wearing my editorial hat, I frequently encourage writers to add more physical details to their manuscripts, as even the description of one’s clothing can reveal hints about his or her character. Citra imparts much re: Mrs. Bannerman with a few select words: “She wore a black dress, closed tightly at the neck with a cameo.”
As with many mysteries, the first several chapters introduce us to numerous colourful characters. There’s Charlotte’s fellow waitress and new friend, Lizzie, with whom she shares a room; Mop, who assists the gardener and aspires to one day be Head Gardener at Butchart Gardens; Abigail, a trouser-wearing English suffragette and card-carrying member of “The Women’s Freedom League;” and kind Mr. Doyle, who harbours secrets and invites Charlotte to play chess with him.
The books unfolds in numerous short chapters, which may be more inviting for young readers than lengthy sections of text. The writing about the staff’s waitressing duties and the patrons’ specific demands contains an air of realism. The first thing a patron (91-year-old Mr. Paisley, who lives at the hotel) utters to inexperienced Charlotte is: “Where have you been all my life, gorgeous?”
The hotel sits beside a hot sulphur spring – a “Sure Cure” for a variety of maladies, from Syphilis to ladies’ complexion issues – and the Bath House, where “Guests in white bathrobes strolled past [Charlotte] in the sunshine,” is minded by an Ethiopian. We read that Charlotte “had already been to the Bath House a few times and had gotten used to his black skin”. (Issues of racism and women’s rights are both addressed in this intriguing story.)
Readers familiar with Victoria will recognize landmarks including Beacon Hill Park; the Empress Hotel; and Fan Tan Alley, in Chinatown, where the air “[smells] of cooking meat, burning joss sticks and wet bamboo”.
And last but not least? There’s a murder.
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