Book Review: Murder at the Dolphin Hotel (A Miss Underhay Mystery, 1) by Helena Dixon

Nell Dixon, author of many award-winning romance novels, Marrying Max and Radio Gaga, begins a new murder mystery series with Murder at the Dolphin Hotel. Murder at the Dolphin Hotel is the first book of the Kitty Underhay series; this delightful cozy mystery series is set in 1930’s Dartmouth, Devon, England, and delves head first into several inter-connected mysteries. Someone is harassing Mrs. Treadwell, owner of the Dolphin Hotel, with threatening letters. Suspecting they might be connected to the unsolved disappearance of her daughter, Elowed Underhay, she hires Captain Matthew Bryant to protect her beloved hotel and granddaughter, Kitty Underhay. With lots of romance, Helena Dixon stays true to her roots and creates a brilliant new mystery series.

The Players:

  • Kitty Underhay: Mrs. Treadwell’s granddaughter and co-owner of The Dolphin Hotel. She manages the Dolphin Hotel alone while her grandmother takes care of a sick relative in Scotland.
  • Mrs. Treadwell “Grams”: Manager of the Dolphin Hotel, mother to Elowed Underhay, and grandmother to Kitty Underhay. She’s been receiving threatening letters from an unknown sender. While she is away taking care of a sick relative, she hires Captain Matthew Bryant as a security guard to watch the hotel and Kitty Underhay.
  • Captain Matthew Bryant: A world war I veteran and the son of a friend of Mrs. Treadwell. He has severe PTSD and is triggered by enclosed places. 
  • Edgar Underhay: Kitty Underhay’s estranged father, who she believed lives in America. He is surprised that he may be in England again, hunting for a ruby that he entrusted to his wife, Elowed Underhay.
  • Elowed Underhay: Kitty Underhay’s mother and Mrs. Treadwell’s daughter. She disappeared in 1916 and has not been seen or heard from since. No investigations have found clues to her whereabouts, and she is presumed dead.
  • Cora Wakes: A maid at the Dolphin Hotel.
  • Colin Wakes: Cora Wakes is a delinquent son who would do anything for money.
  • Mrs. Craven: A friend of Mrs. Treadwell. She also stores a few boxes of Elowed Underhay’s effects at her house. 
  • Miss Delaware: A famous African- American singer hired by Kitty Underhay as the marquee entertainer for the summer season. She’s also an old friend of Elowed Underhay.
  • Bobby: Miss Delaware’s manager and husband.

The Mystery

Kitty Underhay is left to manage the Dolphin Hotel for a week while her grandmother, Mrs. Treadwell, travels to Scotland to care for a sick relative. In the weeks following her departure, Mrs. Treadwell received threatening letters asking her to return something stolen. She believes these letters have something to do with her daughter, Elowed Underhays, whose unsolved disappearance in 1916. Unwilling to leave her granddaughter unprotected, she hires Captain Matthew Bryant to provide security for the hotel and guard her granddaughter. Before she departs for Scotland, a body is found in the river close to the hotel. When Kitty goes into town, she is shoved into the street and nearly rundown. Saved by the quick reactions of Captain Bryant, Kitty shakily returns to the hotel and agrees to work with Captain Bryant in her grandmother’s abscess. Mrs. Treadwell, still suspecting foul play, reluctantly leaves the hotel in Kitty’s stead. 

Once Kitty is in charge of the hotel, she busies herself with preparations for Miss Delaware’s arrival and the upcoming masked ball. After a hectic day running the hotel, Kitty returns to her room and finds someone has rifled through her things. She’s baffled as to who would have done it. She tells Captain Bryant and is now on her guard.

Kitty meets Miss Delaware, her husband, and her manager, Bobby. She is surprised to learn that Miss Delaware was friends with her parents, Elowed and Edgar Underhay. She plies Miss Delaware for more information about her parents. Miss Delaware knows nothing about Elowed’s disappearance but recently saw Edgar Underhay at a club in London. She muses that Edgar might try contacting Kitty because he was looking hard up for money and had left an uncut ruby in Elowed’s possession before she died. Kitty is utterly astonished that her father is in England and has left a ruby in her mother’s possession since she has never seen it,

News that Kitty Underhay might have a ruby spreads through the village gossipers like wildfire. Kitty looks through the few effects she has of her mothers but finds no clues about the ruby. Since the hotel had undergone several renovations after Elowed’s disappearance, her mother’s other effects were stored in Mrs. Treadwell’s friend, Mrs. Craven’s house. Captain Bryant makes an appointment to see Mrs. Craven go collect Elowed’s things and ask her for any information that she might have about this supposed ruby. When he arrives at Mrs. Craven’s house, he finds her bleeding and unconscious from a cosh on the head.

Once at the hospital, the doctor’s saved Mrs. Craven’s life. When Captain Bryant and Elowed question Mrs. Craven about her attack Mrs. Craven initially says he was attacked by a man. However, as the conversation wore on, she admitted that it could have been a woman because she heard a high-pitched girlish giggle before she was struck. Becoming more confused throughout their conversation, she accuses Elowed of hitting her. Kitty is bewildered. Does this mean that Elowed is alive and needs to get the ruby back? She decides to go back through Elowed’s personal items in search of clues. She’s interrupted while looking at a photograph of Elowed by Cora with a tea tray. Cora remarks that she recognizes where Elowed’s picture was taken. Cora’s admission is her last act because she ends up dead in the river by the hotel that night. 

Cora’s grisly death is followed by someone setting fire to the hotel. Once the fire is out, Kitty and Captain Bryant return to her rooms; Kitty finds that the fire was just a distraction, and her things have been ransacked and a few destroyed in a fury. Kitty has a long list of suspects- was it her father, her mother, Miss Delaware who needs money to move to Paris, Miss Delaware’s paramour Bobby, the slippery thief Colin Wakes, or someone else still unknown to her. Kitty and Captain Bryant must find the ruby before the desperate killer causes more destruction when yet another body is found after a botched blackmail attempt. This killing is the murderer’s undoing, and all the clues finally begin to fit together.

The Motives

Once the ruby is introduced in the story, it becomes the only motive for all the characters. Kitty wants to find it so she can give it to her father. Her father, Edgar Underhay, wants to recover it to pay his debts. Miss Delaware and Bobby want to find it to pay off their debts to mobsters back in Chicago and use the rest of the proceeds to move to Paris, where they can live openly as an interracial couple. Colin Wakes wants the ruby because he’s hard up for money. Conflicting motivations that set up harm to the characters are one of the aspects of the story that falls flat, but the jewel hunt is so engrossing that this is only apparent once the story is over.

Understanding the complex emotions that motivate the main characters, Kitty Underhay and Captain Bryant. Will be the main thoroughfares of the series. Murder at the Dolphin Hotel makes the reader care about what happened to Elowed Underhay, not because she was a good person, but because her disappearance has left a path of emotional destruction. Kitty Underhay is timid and only allows herself the tiniest bit of curiosity at the beginning of the mystery because she wants to stay safe for herself and her grandmother. As things happen around her, she slowly realizes that the world is only as secure as she makes it. If she wants security, she has to know what really happened to her parents.

Captain Bryant is also searching for security after the war obliterated his family and mental health. Badly shell-shocked, he suffers in silence while bouncing from job to job. Many share his fate after World War One; it’s a glimpse into a soldier’s emotional turmoil when returning to civilian life when his family is gone to the ravages of war. He cannot go back and is unable to envision a future; it is in this limbo that Captain Bryant has been after leaving his military service. The Dolphin Hotel mystery gives him a purpose and helps him face some of his worst fears since leaving Flanders. His story provides weight to what could be a frivolous ruby hunt. He grounds the book in a world filled with unanswered questions, and his quest for meaning and love is relatable and timeless for readers to ponder.

The Verdict

Murder at the Dolphin Hotel is a book that explores how people can lose so much from circumstances out of their control- particularly family- and how to cope with that loss. Watching the characters struggle and finally overcome being totally defined by their past is lovely. Subsequent novels where characters forge their identities beyond past trauma will be very satisfying. This book is an excellent cozy mystery that focuses more on romance and character interactions, which can waylay the story and bog down the book’s first act but lead to a rewarding thematic conclusion.

The writing, especially in advancing the romantic aspect of the story, is repetitive at times- how many times can Kitty’s cheeks burn when she sees Captain Bryant or her knees weaken in astonishment at the news before the reader thinks- wait, haven’t I read this before? Which I found surprising given Helena Dixon’s previous romance books. Narratively, the decision to not further complicate the plot by explaining what explicitly happened to Captain Bryant’s family was wise. Still, I did think Kitty should have had more of a slow burn in her feelings about Captain Bryant. It felt like she had not built a relationship (even friendship) yet, and then this aspect of the story wallowed until Captain Bryant’s response.

However, the jewel hunt is so fun and engaging that it’s easy to get sucked into. The overarching mystery of what happened to Elowed Underhay will be explored in the series, and I’m hooked because I want to know what happened to her. Was she killed in the war? Was she killed by American mobsters? Is she still alive? My interest is definitely piqued. The hotel setting is basically a locked room premise but supersized. While the Dolphin hotel is a delightful setting, I wanted it to be more of a main character in the story. I wanted to feel like I was in the hotel with its plush furnishings, sordid history, and maybe a cheeky hidden passage to liven things up. Also, we don’t meet many zany or mysterious hotel guests for a story set in a hotel. Sure there’s the fellow jeweler, but I wanted a whole bevy of sinister subjects to analyze and ruminate about while reading. However, these minor quibbles will hopefully be explored in successive novels.

Its main flaw is that Kitty Underhay is bland (by thematic design) in a cast of highly entertaining players. She’s no Tuppence running into danger with a half-cocked plan, a bevy of wit, or a steely-willed Phryne Fisher. Kitty’s content for Captain Bryant to investigate things until he’s badly injured and her father cannot help save her life. Kitty does have a killer third act, where she’s intelligent, brave, and strong- but other moments foreshadowing her transformation sprinkled throughout the book would have been more interesting for the reader and provided a better trajectory for her character. At times, it feels like a Captain Bryant mystery featuring Kitty Underhay. With the ending promising Captain Underhay a new future in security and Kitty enjoying being a detective, I look forward to reviewing their future adventures together and continuing to see Kitty Underhay come into her own. Her newest adventure is out today, January 20, 2023.

Murder at the Charity Ball (A Miss Kitty Underhay Mystery, 11) by Helena Dixon

In Murder at the Charity Ball by Helena Dixon, Kitty Underhay and Captain Matthew Bryant are planning their upcoming wedding! Kitty takes a break from the stress of wedding planning to attend a charity ball hosted by Lady Eliza Foxley. When Lady Eliza Foxley is found dead at her own event, by the wiley Edgar Underhay, Kitty must prove his innocence! With little time and lots at stake Kitty Underhay undertakes her most difficult mystery yet!

Other Mysteries Set at a Hotel:

Murder at the Grand Hotel (Lady Caroline Murder Mysteries, 1)

Meet Lady Caroline, banished to the French Riviera to live with her dull Uncle Albert, who suffers from gout. Things turn deadly when an affluent and well-connected seductress is poisoned at a roulette table, and later, an eminent architect slips from the cliffs into the azure mediterranean sea. Local police believe that someone is killing influential people so they can climb higher on the social ladder. Intrigued by the puzzle before her, Lady Caroline takes up the hunt to catch a brazen killer.

The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye

It’s 1921 when Alice James arrives in Oregon with an illicit fifty thousand dollars in cash, and a bullet wound at the Paragon Hotel after befriending a black Pullman porter, Max. He hides this gun-toting moll from her New York mobster friends at the last place anybody would look for a white woman in Oregon- the Paragon Hotel, which is run by an African-American staff for African- Americans. This decision ruffles the feathers of patrons who live in daily fear of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the most potent and deadliest arms of white supremacy in Jim Crow Oregon. The longer, Alice James stays in Oregon, the deeper she gets pulled into helping the residents of the Paragon Hotel find missing mulatto children. A reckoning is coming for Alice as she uncovers what’s happening in this rich historical suspense novel.

Tell me about your favorite mystery set in a hotel and if you’ve read any of Helena Dixon’s mysteries in the comments below.


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