Writing mysteries set in the past can be challenging. My Sydney Lockhart mystery series is set in the 1950s and to get the details right, I’ve amassed quite a collection of research material about that decade—books about fashion, music, entertainment, politics, economics, and more. And since each mystery takes place in an historic hotel, my research also involves getting a feel for the hotel as it was back then, which can be difficult since most of the places have been remodeled. I usually rely on hotel memorabilia, old photos, and old newspaper articles. Once in a while I find a concierge, like the gentleman at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, who’s become an on-site Menger historian, or the owner of the Luther Hotel in Palacios whose wife’s family were the original owners.
Despite the challenges, writing this series is great fun. I get to travel and spend time at these hotels. So far Sydney and I have found dead bodies in hotels from Hot Springs, Arkansas to Austin, Texas. I think, however, it’s about time to send Sydney someplace far, far way.
The other day I woke up thinking about Morocco. A few years ago I had the pleasure of spending two days in Tangier with my great friend and traveling partner Ruth. Of all the travel adventures I’ve experienced, these two days were the most exotic.
I retrieved my travel journal to reminisce and found the name of the hotel in which we had stayed. The El Minzah Hotel is in the Medina area in heart of the city with rooms overlooking the harbor on the Bay of Tangier. The hotel opened its doors in 1930, and although the rooms have been updated since my trip, my photos show a décor that could have easily dated back to the 1950s.
I began to wander further down memory lane. Ruth and I had hired a local guide named Abdullah to give us a tour. We spent the day exploring the Kasbah, the souk (market) historical sites, and some of the oldest, most intriguing shops in Tangier. As we wandered through the city, Ruth and I kept close to Abdullah for fear of becoming lost forever in the maze of streets darkened by shadows of tall edifices. We came upon a turbaned man crouched near several baskets. With a gentle shove from Abdullah, I took a peak. “Cobra!” the man said in English as he handed me a sedate reptile, which turned out to be a common grass snake. We snapped a few pictures, passed over a few coins, and continued on.
Next we stepped into the Boutique Majid. Our arrival was announced by tinkling brass bells draped over the doorknob. The dimly lit room, redolent of sweet, heavy incense, was tastefully cluttered with collectables both new and old. Abduel Majid Rais El Fenni, the owner, dressed in an embroidered robe and fez, proudly showed us around his treasure trove. Exquisite jewelry, engraved silver boxes, and chests inlaid with camel bone and gems were displayed in glass cabinets. Etchings and prints, cracked and yellowed with age, adorned the walls. Carved wooden furniture and silk carpets were stacked in aisles, creating a narrow path among the treasures. I purchased a pair of sixty-year old amethyst earrings and a garnet-studded silver pin before we bid farewell to our host. Abdullah deposited us back at our hotel at dusk.
The follwing day Ruth and I braved the city alone and found the Bazar Tindouf. At first glance the placed looked like a small antique shop. But the front room led to a back room, which led to another back a room, then another, and another. At the end of the labyrinth, we discovered stairs that took us into a basement full of more rooms that seemed to trail into oblivion. The shop owner claimed the underground portion of his shop wound for several blocks under the city. Fearing we’d never find our way out, Ruth and I backtracked. We spent the next two hours pulling treasures off shelves, unearthing prizes hidden underneath tables, discovering drawers, cabinets, and trunks of junk we couldn’t live without. I left with an eighteen-inch high silver and lead impala sculpture, which now sets next to my desk, several ornate wooden boxes that hold stuff I don’t need, an a antique silver rope-bracelet that is still my favorite piece of jewelry and my most treasured find. Ruth’s most treasured find was a small lamp with a ghost-skin shade. We left the next day before we got into any serious trouble.
Serious trouble? That’s Sydney’s middle name. So now I’m thinking, should I send Sydney to the El Minzah Hotel? Silly question, but to make sure I get the hotel details just right, Sydney and I need to make the journey together.
Kathleen Kaska writes the Sydney Lockhart Mystery Series and the Classic Triviography Mystery Series. Her Sherlock Holmes and Alfred Hitchcock trivia books were finalists for the 2013 EPIC Award in nonfiction.