Agatha Christie meets Harry Potter in a fantasy whodunnit…

The Last Chance Hotel by Nicki Thornton

I knew that this debut novel for 8-12-year-old children would be something special, as Nicki won the  Times Children’s Fiction Competition in 2016 with this book. Part of the prize was to be published by children’s book specialists, Chicken House, run by Barry Cunningham (who used to work for Bloomsbury and discovered JK Rowling).  I must declare that Nicki is a friend, so I really hoped I’d enjoy reading it as an adult too. The good news is, that I devoured it and was totally enchanted by this magical locked room mystery. Let me tell you a bit about it.

If ever Seth Seppi wished he could be even the tiniest bit magic it was now. Because a spell to split himself into three was surely the only way he was going to get through all the tasks he’d been set by his three nasty bosses – crotchety Henri [the chef] and the two owners of the Last Chance Hotel, snappy and spiteful Norrie Bunn and her oily, penny-pinching husband, Horatio. It felt like the hotel had been preparing forever for these special guests that Mr Bunn had been bouncing on his toes about, and today was the day they were due to arrive.

Seth is the kitchen boy and bell boy at the hotel. An orphan now, his father had been the chef at the hotel, and he had passed on his culinary nous to Seth, who, like the mouse in Ratatouille, has an innate skill at balancing ingredients to make a perfect dish.  Seth’s only friend is Nightshade, the hotel cat who can talk. He is terrorised by the Bunn’s daughter, TIffany when she is home from school – like the day the novel starts.

The hotel is hosting a VIP gathering of magicians, led by Dr Torpor Thallomius who will host a secret, closed session in the hotel’s dining room that evening.  Seth will make a special dessert for Dr Thallomius, who is allergic to the raspberries of the main pudding on the menu.  Everyone is on tenterhooks, especially when that afternoon a firefly had flown into the kitchen, causing Henri to drop his knives.

‘It’s beautiful, come and take a look. They look like magic, don’t you think?’
‘But it’s inside!’ Henri hissed, dabbing his sweating upper lip. ‘In my country if a lightning bug flies in the window, it means – it means a death.’ Henri gripped Seth’s arm hard. ‘Seth, someone is going to die.’

Our expectations are set. The magicians are served their desserts, the doors to  the dining room are locked. When the doors burst open and there are cries for help, it is too late for Dr Thallomius who has turned purple with asphyxiation and dies in a heap. His special dessert had been poisoned and Seth is obviously the main suspect, despite having no motive for poisoning the esteemed Dr. and having tasted the dessert himself just before it was taken in.

So, we have a classic locked room mystery, the murderer must be one of the guests, or someone, like Seth who introduced the dessert.  Seth must investigate all the guests to clear his name and  discover the murderer, and of course, Nightshade the cat will help.  He begins by talking to Angelique Squerr, the Dr’s assistant, and she is very helpful, telling Seth about all the other guests, the purpose of the dinner, and the place of magic in our modern world, but does she have her own agenda?  Will the horrid Bunns get their comeuppance?

Seth is a wonderful young hero, resilient and desperate to improve himself so he can leave his life of servitude at the hotel. He is ably assisted Nightshade who enigmatically comes and goes as only a cat can. Of course, the classic Christie-style locked room mystery is complicated by the magic too.  This combination makes for a fast-moving investigation that was just such fun to read. I admit I’m biased, but I would recommend this book for all its target age group and beyond –  if you were to buy a copy for a child – why not read it yourself too! Nicki has told me she’s full of ideas for her next book and I will be delighted to read whatever she writes next too.

Source: Own copy.     Nicki Thornton, The Last Chance Hotel (Chicken House, 2018) paperback, 336 pages.

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