10 Unputdownable Novels Set in Hotels, Resorts, Inns, and Pensions

10 Unputdownable Novels Set in Hotels, Resorts, Inns, and Pensions

Monday, 21 June, 2021

Oh, give us a swanky hotel with an extensive room service menu and frigid air conditioning! So luxurious, so indulgent. There’s something very appealing about being just a little bit anonymous and nesting into a place that’s decidedly not home.

The action in all of these novels kicks off in this othered space — an inn, a lodge, a resort, a pension, and hotels, both somewhat shabby and very grand. Set all over the world, these books share an essential characteristic: Their stories could only happen in a place where the characters are untethered from their own bedrooms, exploring new-to-them environments, and vulnerable to the whims of fate.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Hotels: The Liminal Space with M&Ms in the Mini-Bar.


Set in Canada

 a canoe on a glassy lake
Photo courtesy of Ali Kazal/Unsplash.

A Rule Against Murder - Louise Penny

A Rule Against Murder
> Louise Penny

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is compassionate, intelligent, measured in his speech, generous with his praise, quick to accept responsibility for cock-ups, and — not for nothing — always smells like sandalwood.

Gamache, his friends, family, and assorted villains have starred in 16 books to date, most of which take place in Three Pines, the fictional village where Gamache lives with his adored and adorable wife, Reine-Marie.

In this installment, he and his wife leave Three Pines to celebrate their wedding anniversary at the Manoir Bellechasse, a remote and luxurious mansion on a lake surrounded by forest.

Unfortunately, the Finney family — rich, cultured, horrible people — has also gathered at the inn for a family reunion. During a storm that disrupts the stifling heat and humidity of the summer, one of the Finneys is killed. Inspector Gamache senses murder, and the suspect pool is rich with prospects — imagine an Agatha Christie mystery, but with probing examination of the characters’ psyches. It’s brisk, exciting, and lush with atmosphere, as it explores the dark and light in people’s hearts. {more}

Chief Inspector Gamache knew one thing about hate. It bound you forever to the person you hated. Murder wasn’t committed out of hate, it was done as a terrible act of freedom. To finally rid yourself of the burden. — Louise Penny


Set in Mexico

cenote in tulum mexico
Photo courtesy of Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock.

Girls’ Night Out - Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

Girls' Night Out
> Liz Fenton, Lisa Steinke

This is an astute study of complicated female friendships disguised as a beachy thriller, and you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough because you must. know. what. happened. The story begins with the introduction of three women: Ashley, Natalie, and Lauren. They’ve been friends for 20 years, and though their friendship is cemented with shared memories, it’s also infected with past grievances.

They decide that a boozy trip to Tulum might be just the thing to heal the wounds in their relationships. Spoiler: It is not. From the first moments of their vacation — when they peer pressure each other into drinking margaritas and desperately flirt with the bartender — the old tensions are right there.

After a few tense days together, they embark on a painfully determined girls’ night out. Ashley goes missing, and Natalie wakes up on the beach the next morning, just a few yards from her hotel room, soaking wet and unable to remember anything from the night before.

In addition to reveling in train-wreck characters, this book does a brilliant job capturing the contradictory elements of Tulum: the crystal-gazing, hippy-dippy mysticism; its incredible beauty and perfect beaches; the connection to the past via the Mayan ruins; the endless cocktails; and the seductive notion that you can escape real life for a while.

This is a tense story about mildly terrible people making epically bad decisions. Like a perfectly salted tortilla chip with a tequila chaser, it’s irresistible. {more}

Waves lapped against the shore. It sounded as if the sea were breathing. In and out. In and out. — Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke


Set in New York, USA

large yellow hotel on a snowy mountain
Photo courtesy of Boris Misevic/Unsplash.

Bellweather Rhapsody - Kate Racculia

Bellweather Rhapsody
> Kate Racculia

If you’ve ever been on a music-related school trip — band camp, anyone? — or joined the musical theater crowd, you will relate to the characters of this surprisingly emotional mystery.

Fifteen years ago, on a November night, a bridesmaid named Minnie Graves witnessed a murder-suicide in room 712 of the Bellweather Hotel. Now the once-elegant hotel is past its prime. In an attempt to banish the demons that have haunted her since that terrible night, Minnie returns to the Bellweather.

But fate isn’t finished with her yet. On the day she returns to the hotel, it’s assaulted on two fronts: by a deadly blizzard and by hundreds of high school students at a statewide music festival.

This book is kind of kooky — in a charming, page-turning way. It delivers unexpected depths of emotion as author Kate Racculia twists the beloved tropes of locked room mysteries, musical theater, and horror films to her whims. {more}

The point is that it might open a part of you that’s always been closed. The point is you might make yourself heard. You might find you have a beautiful and terrible - you have a power… We make music to find each other in the dark. And I have to believe the point is that we don’t ever stop calling out. — Kate Racculia


Set in Vermont, USA

wooden door of an inn with flowers and trees
Photo courtesy of Nicolas Erwin/Flickr.

The Inn at Lake Devine - Elinor Lipman

The Inn at Lake Devine
> Elinor Lipman

Our heroine Natalie Marx is a firecracker. Her personal hero is Anne Frank, and she shares the diarist’s stubbornness and innate sense of self and justice.

While the catalyst of the action is the gently-worded, oh-so-polite anti-Semitism of the 1960s, this story is really a love story. With light humor and a few moments of devastating heartbreak, it’s all about family, forgiveness, and the grace inherent in every kind of love.

The misadventures begin when Natalie’s mom requests accommodations at a vacation spot in Vermont. The reply from the proprietress infuriates 12-year-old Natalie: ‘The Inn at Lake Devine is a family-owned resort, which has been in continuous operation since 1922. Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles.’

These two sentences set Natalie on a course that changes her whole life. Along the way, the story delivers laugh-out-loud moments, a shocking surprise, and complicated, rewarding relationships among a cast of unforgettable characters. You will fall in love and have your heart broken — and then healed — right along with Nat. And the story spans all the seasons, with a particularly memorable Christmas spent at the inn. {more}

It was not complicated, and, as my mother pointed out, not even personal: They had a hotel; they didn’t want Jews; we were Jews. — Elinor Lipman


Set in Portugal

estoril hotel palacio in portugal
Photo courtesy of Alexandre Rotenberg/Shutterstock.

Estoril - Dejan Tiago-Stankovic

> Dejan Tiago-Stankovic

This charming, affecting novel tells the interwoven stories of the guests at the luxurious Hotel Palácio Estoril in Portugal during WWII. Our hero Gaby is a young exile sent to the hotel’s relative safety by his Jewish parents, desperate to get beyond the reach of the Nazis. When the hotelier Mr. Black meets Gaby, he breaks all of his own rules about propriety, allowing the serious and besuited little boy to take up residence in a hotel room. Soon, Gaby is ‘adopted’ by the staff and guests as they ride out the war together.

Dejan Tiago-Stankovic — born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and now a naturalized citizen of Portugal — tells a tough story with a light touch. The fictional characters who become Gaby’s found family share the elegant spaces of the hotel with real-life historical figures, including British agent Ian Fleming, Russian chess grandmaster Alexander Alekhine, the famous Polish pianist Jan Paderewski, and French writer (and pilot) Antoine de St Exupery. It’s a fantastical and whimsical way to move the story forward, a respite from the bleak reality of wartime. {more}

When you approach Lisbon from the sea, just before the boat turns into the river, to the left, in the background, you will see a bluish mountain. That is Sintra. It blocks the path of the rain clouds, and as a result, Estoril offers visitors more hours of sunshine than any other resort in Europe. At least so says the tourist brochure for the ‘Sunshine Coast’… Perched among its palm trees, cypress trees, and variegated bushes, is the famous resort’s biggest attraction: the Grand Casino Estoril. Right next to it is a white, three-story building, its windows offering stunning views of the park and ocean. And on top of its dark roof is a big sign saying: HOTEL PALÁCIO. — Dejan Tiago-Stankovic


Set in Italy and England

red tile rooftops in florence, italy
Photo courtesy of Andrey Tairov/Shutterstock.

A Room with a View - E.M. Forster

A Room with a View
> E.M. Forster

The story opens in the Pension Bertolini in Florence, an inn for traveling English gentlefolk that is so British, ‘it might be London.’ We meet Miss Charlotte Bartlett — chaperone, stifled, judgmental, lonely — and Miss Lucy Honeychurch, her niece, on a trip abroad for finishing. The inn and their rooms — significantly, without a view — are a disappointment to both Charlotte and Lucy. The travelers are further disillusioned by the other guests at the inn who are deemed unfortunate by the uptight Charlotte; she holds particular ire for the uninhibited Mr. Emerson and his fanciful son George.

Despite Lucy’s intentions to be good — that is, to be quiet, humble, respectable — our heroine is almost always in a muddle. She lives a tidy, ordered existence, but she’s naturally curious and, deep down, wants to fight against a society that labels overt kindness as indelicate. When she plays Beethoven on the piano with heated passion, it inspires another character to remark: ‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.’

But nothing — not a scrape with death, nor a stolen kiss in a field of wildflowers — gives Lucy the courage she needs to defy convention. She returns to the cool, well-understood drawing room of her family home at Windy Corners in Surrey and succumbs to the comfort of a respectable fiancé and a conventional life. But, as we all know, books are powerful things, and the chance reading of a passage in a scandalous novel jolts Lucy out of her muddle. What she does next unbalances Lucy and everyone around her in the best way possible. {more}

‘The Signora had no business to do it,’ said Miss Bartlett, ‘no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view close together, instead of which here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart. Oh, Lucy!’

’ And a Cockney, besides!’ said Lucy, who had been further saddened by the Signora’s unexpected accent. ‘It might be London.’ She looked at the two rows of English people who were sitting at the table; at the row of white bottles of water and red bottles of wine that ran between the English people; at the portraits of the late Queen and the late Poet Laureate that hung behind the English people, heavily framed… ‘Charlotte, don’t you feel, too, that we might be in London? I can hardly believe that all kinds of other things are just outside…’ — E.M. Forster


Set in Morocco

alley with arches in morocco
Photo courtesy of Renato De Santis/Shutterstock.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty - Vendela Vida

The story opens with an unnamed narrator on a plane from Miami to Casablanca. We know a tragedy has befallen our heroine, and even the guide book she flips through to distract herself has an ominous tone: The first thing to do upon arriving in Casablanca is get out of Casablanca. She has booked a room for three nights in Casablanca; it is, perhaps, a bad omen.

At check-in, distracted and hobbled by the rigors of jetlag, someone steals her nondescript black backpack. Inside is everything that identifies her as her: passport, laptop, credit cards, cash, camera, toiletries, a pair of coral earrings.

This troubling loss sets off a chain of events that takes surprising turns. Cut adrift from her identity both by geography and paperwork, she becomes a chameleon. As she moves further from her real life, we learn more about the tragic events that sent her on the run. And we’re forced to consider how we’d react in similar situations, even as we marvel at the puzzling decisions she makes.

Noirishly dark, this novel is a gleefully wicked examination of how we recognize ourselves when we’re detached from everything we think defines us. {more}

Your plan was to go to Fez, to Marrakech, to the desert, but these places no longer have appeal. You try to imagine when they did have appeal. You try to remember the person you were when planning this very trip. — Vendela Vida


Set in Bulgaria

rila monastery in bulgaria

The Shadow Land - Elizabeth Kostova

The Shadow Land
> Elizabeth Kostova

When our heroine, twenty-something American Alexandra Boyd, travels to Sophia, she’s running away from her life rather than seeking new adventures. But adventure finds her.

A chance encounter with a family on the steps of a hotel embroils her in a decades-old mystery, placing her at the center of a story that involves music, art, world wars, corruption, and the many forms of love.

When we meet Alex, she’s jet-lagged, disoriented, and has just been dropped off by a cab at the wrong hotel. Then she literally bumps into a Bulgarian family and, after an awkward interaction, helps them into the taxi. As she watches them drive away, she realizes she’s accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside is a wooden box engraved with the name Stoyan Lazarov, and it holds an urn that contains human ashes.

On the trail of clues about the identity of the Lazarov family, Alex travels through the countryside, visiting ancient monasteries and exploring small villages trapped in time. But it’s not all travelogue descriptions and soft sunshine. This is a tightly-plotted suspense thriller with tense chase scenes, legitimate danger, well-motivated villains, and a collection of regular people who prove themselves to be remarkable heroes. {more}

I have often thought that the terrible thing in communism was not just that we turned against each other. It was that we turned away from each other. — Elizabeth Kostova


Set in Russia

saint basil's cathedral in red square in moscow
Photo courtesy of Irina Grotkjaer/Unsplash.

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow
> Amor Towles

We should not like Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov — recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, and Master of the Hunt. He’s rich, prone to quoting literature, and fussy about wine. But the Count will quickly become someone you wish you could know in real life.

But in 1922 Russia, the Count is wildly unpopular with the Communists. He’s a relic of the past, but for political reasons, he can’t be eliminated. So they hide him away in the Metropol Hotel. Sentenced to house arrest in the epitome of luxury, he watches as his world suddenly shrinks to the confines of a small room and then slowly, surprisingly, expands. The hotel becomes a peculiar community of those who can leave, and he, who may not.

The Count eventually forges friendships with the other misfits — a preternaturally self-possessed 9-year-old girl, a taciturn chef, an elegant maître d’ — and all of them are affected in unexpected ways.

The hotel is luxurious, a character in itself, and the plot churns on small moments with devastating impact as the characters do all their living — and in some cases, dying — within the orbit of the Metropol. It’s funny and sweet and devastating, and you will never forget these people and their commitment to life. {more}

For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim. — Amor Towles


Set in New Zealand

a sheep standing in the green grass overlooking the coast in new zealand
Photo courtesy of Dmitry Pichugin/Shutterstock.

Colour Scheme - Ngaio Marsh

Colour Scheme
> Ngaio Marsh

Ah, the resort area of Wai-ata-tapu in New Zealand. Mud baths, hot springs, the majesty of volcanic Rangi’s Peak, a Māori village, and… oops! murder. Welcome to the irresistibly sinister world of Ngaio Marsh, the Kiwi Queen of Crime.

It’s 1942, and the war has made its way south to the waters around New Zealand. Retired Colonel Claire, a nice fellow (and terrible businessman), runs a hot springs spa with his wife with little enthusiasm and not much more success. The resort is on the verge of being taken over by Maurice Questing, a pushy gasbag who offends just about everyone he meets — and who may or may not be a Nazi spy.

Between soaks in the mud baths and uncomfortable family meals, we get to know the characters in all their flawed and suspicious glory. Because this is a Golden Age crime story, it’s not long before there are mysterious happenings in this previously soothing patch of New Zealand real estate, including a ship torpedoed in the bay, mysterious flashing lights, unexplained absences, a disagreement about sacred Māori artifacts, and a dead body in the boiling mud bath of Taupo-tapu. {more}

The road corkscrewed its way in and out of a gully and along a barren stretch of downland. On its left, the coast ran freely northwards in a chain of scrolls, last interruptions in its firm line before it tightened into the Ninety Mile Beach. The thunder of the Tasman Sea hung like a vast rumor on the freshening air, and above the margin of the downs Rangi’s Peak was slowly erected. ‘That’s an ominous-looking affair,’ said Gaunt. ‘What is it about these hills that gives them an air of the fabulous? They are not so very odd in shape, not incredible like the Dolomites or imposing like the Rockies — not, as you point out in your superior way, Dikon, really mountains at all. Yet they seem to be pregnant with some tiresome secret. What is it?’ — Ngaio Marsh

Top image courtesy of Ph B/Unsplash.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

The heat of a restaurant kitchen is a delicious catalyst for the drama inherent in professional rivalry, found family, true love, and everything in between. There's nothing quite like food to bring people together.
Cozy murders, procedurals, historical novels, spy thrillers, domestic noir, family crime — we've collected our favorite mysteries and thrillers to take you on a world tour of action, adventure, and danger. Buckle up.
It's anchors aweigh on these literary voyages that promise excitement of both the physical and emotional variety. You'll meet a lady pirate, a WWII freighter captain, the passengers of a luxury liner, Ishmael, and more.
From classics 'Jane Eyre' and 'Northanger Abbey' to Agatha Christie and Tana French, the creaky halls and haunted histories of manor houses are the ideal backdrop for secrets, ghosts, betrayal, and romance.
Set in Sweden, Scotland, England, Canada, and Salem, Massachusetts, these stories place memorable characters in dire circumstances so we can live vicariously — and safely — through them. Welcome home.
These books — set between the two world wars — feature houses that could be a safe haven for the characters, if it weren't for all the tension, the close quarters, the haunted feelings, and oh, yeah... muuuurder.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter

Join our Substack to get our FREE newsletter with podcast updates and behind-the-scenes info join in fun chats about books and travel.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
Sign up for our free Substack!
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.