The Third Hotel is a mystery novel that operates on several levels. The basic plot locates Clare in Cuba, ostensibly to attend a film festival. In Havana, she sees her late husband, who had died only a month earlier. She tries to understand his presence there: could he really be a ghost? Or did he not die in the accident? Likewise, the reader wonders about her state of mind. As there is initially little backstory provided, it is feasible that she is hallucinating or that she may be fleeing something other than her grief. As other mysteries are added, a surreal atmosphere takes over. Clare carries a sealed white box that was with Richard when he died. An actress in one of the films is reported missing. As the author piles on the layers, the reader anticipates that there will not be one neat solution.
As we gradually learn about Clare’s personality and her marriage, we realize that she had already been a secretive person and that she and her husband often spent time apart. Now that she has the once longed-for solitude, however, Clare cannot enjoy it because of the terrible way she became alone. As she struggles to locate herself in the here-and-now, the past intrudes on her. The “new” or pseudo Richard seems more real to her than the original. In this respect, the Havana setting is ideal, with its elements of antiquated material culture and the challenges that ordinary Cubans face in moving forward from the isolation that had been imposed upon them.
Laura van den Berg’s debt to her predecessors in the mystery genre is clear and sometimes stated. Clare travels with, but seldom reads, a Patricia Highsmith novel. The plethora of unresolved incidents and shifting quality of reality call to mind the politically informed detective novels of Mexico’s Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Then it goes back further, to the quintessential father of Latin American fantastic fiction, Jorge Luis Borges, who in turn traced his lineage to Edgar Allan Poe.
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