Pioneering French filmmaker Claude Ballard has lived at the Hotel Knickerbocker for almost half a century. It’s a quiet existence, by Hollywood hotel standards at least, and Claude fills his days taking photographs and keeping an eye on the hotel’s more vulnerable residents. But when an enthusiastic young film student arrives, keen to discover the truth behind Claude’s lost movie masterpiece, a past Claude would rather not relive is more than happy to return to haunt him.
The latest release from author Dominic Smith, The Electric Hotel is a richly detailed, meticulously researched, and intriguingly crafted novel. Bouncing between the decades, readers follow Claude, entrepreneur Hal Bender, Aussie stuntman Chip Spalding, and magnetic French actress Sabine Montrose through a series of chapters framed around conversations between Claude and PhD student Martin Embry, who is eager to piece together the story of Claude’s ill-fated film, ‘Electric Hotel’. From the early beginnings of cinema and the New Jersey movie town of Fort Lee (Hollywood wasn’t the first!), our characters wend their way to the battlefields of the First World War, the sickbeds of those struck down with Spanish flu, and, eventually, to the dying days of the Golden Age of film.
The scope of this historical fiction is huge, and for the most part it’s an immersive read, even if there is perhaps too much going on at times. But where Hal, Chip, and Sabine offer exciting and interesting voices, our main lead Claude (more specifically Past Claude) leaves something to be desired. There’s just something rather dull and cold about him, and the continued focus on this pretentious little man and his obsession with an actress twenty years his senior made the book more of a struggle than expected. That obsession is integral to the story, of course – without his passion for Sabine, there would be no ‘Electric Hotel’ – but there’s an uneasiness to it that seems to be rooted in more than just the uncomfortable nature of the situation. For all its excitement, action, and often almost quite whimsical prose, it’s still the bitter story of a man who never quite got over a woman, and I feel like I’ve seen that one before.
Older, softer, and relatively unburdened, the Claude that Martin encounters is much more palatable; a curious little Frenchman with an epic story to tell. The lack of ulterior motive in Martin is also a really lovely touch – he truly just wants to share the history of Claude Ballard and ‘The Electric Hotel’ – and the final pages offer an ending that is both touching and, happily, quite satisfying.
Featuring tiger attacks, death defying stunts, dodgy loan sharks, and a Thomas Edison who’s every bit the piece of work we all expect him to be, The Electric Hotel almost feels like it should be an adventure novel. But it, like the silent films it pays homage to, is just missing that last little piece. For the films, it was sound. For The Electric Hotel, it’s a little bit of soul.