An unresolved mystery at Mussoorie’s Savoy Hotel gave Agatha Christie her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). The death of an English spinster under mysterious circumstances in one part of the British Empire led to the birth of Christie’s avuncular aesthete, Hercule Poirot, in another. But there was something very distinct about the melancholy air of Mussoorie that enabled this transmogrification.

In present-day Mussoorie, the remains of Edwardian cottages line the road from Camel’s Back Cemetery towards the Library. On either side of the vintage path lie skeletons of old bay windows, crumbling balusters, and cast iron lampposts manufactured long ago in Glasgow.

On the ruins of a school

A little ahead of Mussoorie Library, on the road to Happy Valley, lies the Savoy. The hotel was built by Cecil D Lincoln, an Irish barrister from Lucknow, on the site of Reverend Maddock’s Mussoorie School, and was completed in 1902.

Bullock carts trundled up the winding mountain roads from Dehradun to purvey to the hotel its Edwardian furnishings, Steinway pianos, billiard tables, champagne crates, cider barrels and the trunks of oak used to fashion the grand wooden floor of the hotel’s dining hall.

The Savoy’s popularity rivalled that of Mussoorie’s own Charleville hotel, Shimla’s Cecil or Lucknow’s Carlton. According to Ruskin Bond, it had “all the appurtenances of a hotel that was to become well known as the Raffles in Singapore or the Imperial in Tokyo [that] came up in these lumbering Mr. Buckle’s Bullock Cart Train”.

Locked room mystery

The germ for Christie’s novel was sown in the summer of 1911, when 49-year-old British spiritualist, Frances Garnett-Orme, arrived at the hotel. She had earlier been betrothed to a British officer from the United Provinces, who died before the wedding. The tragedy must have reinforced Garnett-Orme’s faith in séances and crystal-gazing in her attempts to communicate with the other side of life. At the Savoy, she was followed by Eva Mountstephen, a spiritualist from Lucknow.

One day, when Mountstephen had taken off to Lucknow on urgent business, Garnett-Orme was found in her room, well past rigor mortis. The door was locked from inside. Pigments of prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) were revealed in the autopsy. Suspicions immediately fell on Mountstephen who was brought to trial before Justices Tudball and Rafiq of the Allahabad High Court on charge of tampering with the deceased’s bottle of sodium bicarbonate, thereby poisoning her.

Mountstephen was acquitted due to want of evidence, and the true circumstances of the death of Garnett-Orme were pronounced likely to be never known. In a few months, the doctor who had performed Garnett-Orme’s autopsy was also found dead, this time of strychnine poisoning.

Talks of the case reached Rudyard Kipling who sent the details of the mystery to his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The doctor was unable to contrive an Indian itinerary for his sleuth from 221B Baker Street, but the facts of the case travelled to Christie, who used it to draft her first novel. Incidentally, aspects of the Savoy’s architecture might have lent themselves to Styles Court, an Essex County manor, which was the setting of Christie’s first book.

The legend of Garnett-Orme also became the stimulus behind Ruskin Bond’s In A Crystal Ball – A Mussoorie Mystery (2003).

The Savoy was once the toast of the town. Scores of distinguished personages have stayed at the hotel, many of them writers – from Jim Corbett to John Masters (the writer of Bhowani Junction, who served with the Gurkha Regiment at Dehradun) to the Nobel Laureate Pearl S Buck.

Ghost trail

Garnett-Orme’s ghost, along with a few others, is believed to haunt the Savoy, as do literary enthusiasts and supernatural-minded tourists now. These ghosts – in their many manifestations and legends – keep alive the Gothicism of the hotel and the township.

Until before the Savoy was acquired by the ITC Welcomgroup Hotels in 2009 and renovated, its jaded imperial interiors led to many a dirge – where apparitions respired imperceptibly and the cadavers of Camel’s Back Cemetery turned in their sleep.

Writing in 2007, in an essay titled Life and Times of Savoy, Ganesh Saili charily brought that nostalgic haunting to strike a farewell note for Savoy’s faithful spirits:

“Suddenly, I hear a shuffling behind me. Is it the ghosts of the past come to bid one last goodbye? Or, is it the wind playing in the gables…I move on from door to door, from transept to transept, from corridor to lounge, from ballroom to balcony, tracing a century here, a generation there, in pillar and arch, vault and buttress. And I will probably end where I began: at the rosewood entrance which throws its massive arch into a work-a-day world, and inside, hoards of treasure trove of memories.”

Arup K Chatterjee is the founding chief editor of Coldnoon: Travel Poetics –International Journal of Travel Writing.