Sunday, June 16, 2024

Christopher Huang Guest Post: On Dressing for the Occasion

Sunday—Jeff introducing Chris

Christopher Huang––better known as Chris to those of us who see him at seemingly every major book conference on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean––was born and raised in Singapore, studied architecture at Canada’s McGill University in Montreal and now lives in Calgary where he writes exclusively in post-WW1 Britain. His first novel, A Gentleman's Murder, was published in 2018; it was followed by Library Journal’s star-reviewed Unnatural Ends in 2023. His third book, a sequel to his first, is expected in May 2025. Chris dabbles in interactive fiction and has difficulty passing up a good "full English" breakfast.


When I asked Chris a month ago at Bristol UK’s CrimeFest to consider writing a guest post for MIE, little did I expect that this man known for his conservative sartorial splendor would share a nigh on “bare it all” tale of his post-CrimeFest adventuring through an expanse of suburbia extending northwest from London known as Metroland, and his harrowing efforts to escape the clutches of his Metroland hotel.




When I ran into Jeff Siger on my first night at Crimefest this year and he suggested that I contribute a post to this blog, I wondered what to write. A deep and terribly learned treatise on the history of train travel, perhaps? A survey of various executions of the full English breakfast? As it turned out, however, Fate would soon take a hand.


Now, I think we can all agree that overseas travel is expensive. So if I’m going to cross seven time zones, you can bet I’m doing a little more than just Crimefest before heading home again. After all, I’m a Canadian writing in a British setting; and as Cathy Ace pointed out to me in 2018 when I first cancelled my original flight home in favour of tromping all over the North Yorkshire moors in the dress shoes and suit intended for a weekend of sitting around a Bristol hotel, the best sort of research is actually being there. Most of my post-Crimefest adventuring, therefore, has been about research in one way or another.


This year, my focus was Metroland.


That’s the expanse of suburbia extending northwest from London along the old Metropolitan Railway line. Housing development there began in the 1800s, but really took off around the early 1900s as the men came home from WW1 demanding a better life. I found a cheap hotel in the heart of that suburbia, and I wasn’t too particular since I wasn’t there to enjoy its amenities. The bathrooms were shared, something I’ve experienced before but have yet to get used to. I mean, what’s the dress etiquette when you’ve first rolled out of bed? Most people don’t pack a dressing gown nowadays. But as long as you remember to bring your keycard with you, all should be well. Right? Besides, the staff was accommodating enough to check me into my room four hours early, which I appreciated.


My first day passed without a hitch. I hit up the London Transport Museum, on the grounds that half my research always seems to be about how people got from A to B in the 1920s — the price of writing historical fiction, I suppose. Besides, Metroland was originally developed by the Metropolitan Railway and intrinsically linked to the idea of an easy commute to and from the City of London, so this was a good place to start.


My particular period of interest is WW1 and its aftermath. Aside from learning about the recruitment of women workers and the requisition of buses for military transport, I also learned that corporations have been making questionable advertising decisions since forever …


The next two days were spent invading the countryside from Harrow to Amersham. The urban furor of London seems to fade a little with every stop northwest, which is to be expected. At Amersham, for instance, the green pastures promised by the old Metroland brochures were much more in evidence. Meanwhile, the residential houses of each old suburb are a lesson in how the same cookie-cutter design can be dressed up in an infinite variety of ways; and, given about eighty to a hundred years of renovation and repair, that “dressing up” can settle into a bone-deep individuality.



Also, no Metroland suburb is complete without its own WW1 memorial.


Somewhere in the middle of this was when my hotel keycard first died. It was no matter: a quick stop into the reception soon resolved the issue.


Day four, I visited Highgate Cemetery, which subverts the usual expectation of ordered graves set in manicured lawns with winding paths amid dense foliage. Never mind the famous people buried here, from Douglas Adams to Karl Marx: what truly impresses is the sense of civilisation being absorbed back into nature.


I found that my keycard had died again when I returned that night. The clerk had it re-reactivated, and I thought nothing more of it. After all, my flight home was the next morning. What could possibly go wrong in the next twelve hours?


Of course, any savvy reader knows that I wouldn’t have mentioned any details of my hotel situation if, in fact, nothing went wrong.


The plan was to leave at 6:30 AM and catch the bus, which should get me into Heathrow Airport by 8:00 AM, to give me plenty of time for my 10:15 AM flight. I awoke at about 5:45 AM, left my room to use the facilities … and found that my keycard had died a third time.


So there I was, locked out of my room wearing nothing but my underwear, with a transatlantic flight coming up in a matter of hours. I headed down to the reception, only to find it empty. Perhaps it was too early … or perhaps the clerk was napping in the back room? Rather uncomfortably, the reception was actually separate from the main hotel, which left me stretched across the porch area, in full view of the public street, with one foot wedging open the main door as I hammered on the reception door. No one responded, but hope springs eternal, as they say.


I honestly considered breaking a window to get either into the reception or my own room. But the first would achieve nothing, since I had no idea how to work the keycard machine; and I had no way up the side of the building to my room window. Meanwhile, suburban London zoomed by on the street before me, hopefully too focused on the workday ahead to notice the guy standing there in his … uh, did I say underwear? No no, these are workout clothes. Clearly. Nothing to see here as I do my stretches before heading out for a pre-breakfast run … barefoot. I will never complain about hiking the North Yorkshire countryside in a business suit again.


A couple of other guests, noticing my predicament, were kind enough to try calling the hotel management on their phones; but it wasn’t until 7:00 AM that the clerk showed up — half an hour after my planned exit. I got my keycard re-re-reactivated, hurriedly dressed, and caught a taxi instead of a bus to arrive at Heathrow much as originally planned.


Given the focus of this blog, I should share a few lessons I learned from this experience outside of my intended research:


1. Allow plenty of time for things to go wrong, because they invariably will.

2. Wear clean underwear, preferably of the sort that can pass at a distance for casual wear.

3. If your keycard dies twice while nobody else’s does, it could mean that the card itself is wearing out. Get a new one rather than simply reactivate this one, even if you’ve only got twelve hours left on your stay.


Last year, my already-extended post-Crimefest adventure was made longer when my flight home was cancelled at the last minute by an airline strike. This year, this happens. If I didn’t know better, I’d wonder if Britannia wants to keep me for her very own.




  1. A most entertaining tale of keycard chicanery! And your photos of Highgate Cemetary are inspiring. As I'm quite interested in post-WW1 British society due to so many relatives having survived both the war and the aftermath, I'll be checking into you books. Being a fellow Calgarian, I feel certain I'll find them in my favourite local indie bookstores.

    1. It's a fascinating period and setting! I haven't checked out the local indie bookstores, but even if they're not there, I'm sure the bookstores will be happy to order in a copy or two.

  2. Oh dear--I'm sorry you had to go through that but couldn't help laughing! Thank you for the photos of Highgate.

  3. I advise checking Annamaria's blog today (Monday) for the aphorism about adventures!