Six writers, a two-man Flemish television crew, a Flemish diplomat and three organizing Brits arrive in Oxford for a literary event in a bookshop. They arrive one snowy January afternoon (shot of white hills and ice-hung trees) and are put up in the quaint 17th century Bath Place Hotel. It’s a maze of a place made up of connecting houses, random staircases and lots of doors around a neat little courtyard with Ieylandii pot plants hung in fairy lights.
The group are under intense pressure. The organisers are concerned about attendance at the event, it’s day one of the tour and if no one turns up they’ll have egg on their face. The writers come from two different countries ‘divided by a common language’ as the expression goes, but along which lines will the allegiances form? One of the Belgians lives in the Netherlands, one of the Dutch spent half his life in Flanders, it’s not really clear who is Belgian and who is Dutch. Identities are shifting and group coherence is still flimsy.
The hotel itself adds to the problems. The floors are sloping, the walls are sloping, doors and corridors merge. It isn’t long before graphic novelist Judith van Istendael is complaining of a ‘psychologically confusing effect’. The group is also divided between those with freezing cold bedrooms and those with boiling hot. What does this mean? Heaven or hell? And what to make of the camera man’s room with notes on each window pane forbidding the opening of said windows. Is this a precaution should he happen to film the courtyard under the cover of night?
Before they leave again the next morning one of them will be found dead. Will it be Lieve Joris, an attractive Belgian travel writer/journalist who may have upset the Chinese mafia while working on her new book? Or Ramsey Nasr, the political poet who can say anything he likes now that his term as Dutch poet laureate is about to come to an end? Or perhaps the Flemish diplomat Geert de Proost, embroiled in some kind of a political struggle in the EU. Maybe the Dutch are out to get him, or the French.
And who will find the body? Surely the tour’s organiser and presenter Rosie Goldsmith is a shoe-in for that role with her leopard print coat and dramatic red accessories. I see her flailing arms now, I can hear her scream. My tour, my tour. And here comes Morse now in his Jag, passing the picturesque colleges, the chapels, the snow…
None of this happens of course. Although Chika Unigwe fails to show at the appointed time, she is tracked down to her room where she is either asleep or lost track of time (blame it on the hotel) and all is well. The event in Blackwells bookshop has a decent-sized audience. If any murder is planned it seems to be by the bookshop owners themselves. Conditions in the gigantic basement area are arctic, performers and audience alike shiver in their seats. Nevertheless, the conversations are lively, the readings excellent (a linguistically talented group of writers indeed) and the till rings as books are purchased. Nice one, Rosie. One down, five to go.