A Locked Room Mystery Unstuck in Time: Rob Hart’s The Paradox Hotel

Done right, the combination of two archetypal genre stories into something new can work brilliantly — and science fiction has seen its share of this over the years. Admittedly, “done right” is a big qualifier. There are whole literary graveyards full of space Westerns, hard-boiled detectives living in the future, and time-travel romances that didn’t quite get the balance right. Which, then, begs the question: how do you get the balance right? Rob Hart’s The Paradox Hotel offers a memorable case study in how to bridge two genres in a way that satisfies readers of both.

There’s an excellent essay by Lincoln Michel where he writes about using genre as the engine of a story. Michel writes about combining familiar elements “in a way that both satisfies and subverts expectations.” Consider two novels that could both be described as science fictional spins on locked-room mysteries: Hart’s novel and Tade Thompson’s Far From the Light of Heaven. What makes both books succeed, ultimately, is that neither the science fictional elements nor the mystery feels undercooked; instead, neither would work without the other.

The two books also make for an interesting case study in the ways that they differ. Thompson’s novel is set in space, at a time in the future when humanity has begun to explore and settle in outer space. Hart’s is also set in the future — albeit in a time much closer to now — but its particular corner of science fiction is the time travel story. Well, kind of.

Hart’s first foray into science fiction, 2019’s The Warehouse, was largely set inside a shipping center (à la Amazon) that had expanded into a small city unto itself. Here, too, Hart drew on his background in crime fiction to keep the pursuit of a killer and some corporate espionage in the foreground, even as the worldbuilding of a corporatist near-future loomed over everything. As its title suggests, The Paradox Hotel is also largely set in a single location, a hotel located near a facility in which tourists travel back in time.

January Cole, the novel’s narrator, works as an investigator there. She bears the emotional and physical scars of a high-impact life, including a chronic condition as a result of her time spent traveling through time, known as being Unstuck. Though she’s prescribed a drug called Retronim, that’s a matter of bringing her condition under control rather than curing it. And, as a doctor tells her in the novel’s opening pages, if she reaches the second stage, she’ll be unable to do her job.

Which is alarming, because we soon learn that January has been in the second stage for a while already—something she feels ambivalent about. The second stage of being Unstuck involves a kind of psychological temporal displacement, including visions of the past and future. And in January’s case, that means visions of her now-deceased girlfriend Mena, who worked at the hotel. “I know she’s not really there,” January thinks. “But she’s also the reason I could never leave this place.”

The hotel is also home to bizarre sights, which seem to be increasing. Clocks occasionally slip between seconds. A baby velociraptor roams the hallways. And as The Paradox Hotel proceeds, the flow of time within the hotel grows stranger and stranger. And there’s also the matter of the dead body January finds within one room — one which only she can see, and which seems to be “a moment frozen in time.”

While this is taking place, the hotel is also hosting a group of high-profile delegates currently negotiating over the fate of the hotel and commercial time travel. If you think that a few politicians and billionaires might have some secrets they’d prefer to keep concealed, you’d be correct. January’s investigation into what, exactly, is going on eventually encompasses the hotel’s own history, and its resistance and vulnerability to the radiation produced by traveling through time.

Throughout The Paradox Hotel, Hart creates a sense of a place on the cusp of being irrevocably changed—and of a style of living that may have exceeded its viability. That January herself is in waning health furthers this elegiac mood. January’s voice also makes for a memorable guide to this work, offering a relatable and grounded take on impossible concepts, such as this description of being Unstuck:

“Sometimes your brain jumps into future moments too, but those are harder to remember once you come out of them. It’s like waking from a dream, the memory dissolving the more you think about it. Because it’s not really a memory since it hasn’t happened yet.”

In the end, The Paradox Hotel succeeds as both a mystery and as a story involving time travel. Do you want head-spinning theories on the flow of time and what it might do to people and places? You’ll find both in abundance here. But you’ll also find a resourceful, haunted protagonist pushing herself to the limit to uncover the truth behind an impossible case—one that eventually leads her to a conclusion that satisfies both of the genres from which this novel emerged.

The Paradox Hotel is published by Ballantine Books.

reel-thumbnailTobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).


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