The Origins of ‘The Mystery of Room 12’ by Robin Stevens
In spring last year I travelled to St-Annes-on-Sea for Storytellers Inc’s Midsummer Mystery festival. I knew I had a short story to write for a mystery anthology I was working on at Egmont, but I hadn’t been able to find inspiration for it yet. I wanted to challenge myself by creating something contemporary – after four books, the 30s felt dangerously comfortable, and I wanted to make sure I was actually capable of writing a detective story in a world with iPads and smartphones and Google. But where should I set it? And what could it be about?
It should have occurred to me that St-Annes-on-Sea was probably by the sea – but, somehow, what I found when I stepped off the train was a complete surprise. A miles-long expanse of beach and sky, beautiful but with a slightly eerie, off-season loneliness of it as the sun began to set, and one single donkey plodding along very slowly, far out on the sand. I stood and stared at it, and I thought to myself, this is a place that someone could get lost.
I wheeled my suitcase along the row of beachfront hotels until I found the one I’d been booked into. It was tall and white with elegant windows, like something from an episode of Poirot. And I suddenly realised that I wanted to set my story in a hotel, in a seaside town just like this one.
I went up the steps, and pushed open the front door. The hall was empty, the front desk lit by a big antique lamp with a fringed shade. I went up to the desk and rang the bell – and a gorgeously large and hairy dog leaped up out of nowhere, banged its front paws down on the wood of the desk and panted in my face. A hotel with a dog concierge! I thought. That sounds like the beginning of a story.
By the time I’d been shown to my room, at the top of a winding, narrow set of stairs, hung with paintings and lined by statues and figurines and china ornaments, lamps and tables and desks and drawers, the story was alive in my head. My detective would be a little boy called Jamie, who lived in a seaside hotel with his father and his pet dog. And the mystery, of course, would be a disappearing guest. Jamie would be a modern detective, with all of the gadgets of the 21st century at his disposal – but the mystery would still have to be all about careful observation and clever deductions, with three suspects and one bewildering question: what happened to the guest in Room 12?
The idea sat in my head for a month, and then I finally wrote it in August last year. Writing a short story turns out to be very different to writing a novel. A book is a marathon – slow and steady’s the way to go. But short stories are one sprinting burst of inspiration. It took me less than twenty-four hours to write 4,000 words of it – and it turns out that I love writing short stories. You can test yourself, try new things and explore ideas without the pressure of 60,000 words ahead of you. Trying to create a totally new character, too, was harder than I’d expected – I had to make Jamie seem real instantly, and different enough from Hazel, the narrator of my Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, to be believable.
I hope Jamie and his story works – and, from reading the 11 other stories in the collection, I know that it’s in great company. The stories of Mystery & Mayhem are smart, funny, strange and gruesome. I never knew what to expect – and I hope that, when you read them, you’ll feel just as fascinated and delighted by them as I did.
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