Today, Natalie Jane Prior is writing about her book discovery of 2017.
The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes, 1913.
I’d never heard of this book, or its author for that matter, but a passing reference in something else I was reading piqued my interest enough for me to download the ebook.
Mr and Mrs Bunting are at the end of their resources. Middle-aged former servants, their London lodging house has failed, and they have been reduced to surviving on furtive trips the pawnshop, when miraculously, a new lodger arrives and takes all four empty rooms in the house. Mr Sleuth is a gentleman of quiet habits, much given to Bible reading, an educated person who needs the space for his unspecified scientific “experiments”. Best of all, he pays his account regularly in gold sovereigns.
Of course, it’s all too good to be true. Mr Sleuth may be quiet, but he also has a habit of creeping out of the house in the middle of the night, and he does strange things like turning all Mrs Bunting’s chocolate box pictures of ladies to face the wall (so their eyes don’t follow him around). There is also the matter of sinister little bag he arrived with, his only luggage, which so mysteriously disappears soon after his arrival, and the horrible smelling smoke he creates in the kitchen in the early hours of the morning. It doesn’t take long for the Buntings to start suspecting there may be a link between their perfect lodger, and the Avenger, perpetrator of the string of horrific murders of women that is currently terrifying London.
While Marie Belloc Lowndes has loosely based her story on the Ripper murders of a generation before, The Lodger is surprisingly bloodless. It’s a psychological parlour piece, taking place almost entirely in the claustrophobic setting of the Buntings’ sitting room, bedroom and kitchen, in which first the wife, and then the husband move from relief and delight in their good fortune to unease, concern, suspicion, fear and finally, guilt and complicity. For underlying everything is the Buntings’ own vulnerability as respectable working class people with limited resources. The failure of their lodging house has pushed them to the very brink. They’ve stared the poorhouse in the face. Where will they find themselves, if they’re revealed to have harboured a monster?
It’s easy to see why this scenario attracted a young Alfred Hitchcock; he evidently made a silent film based on the book. I remain mystified, however, that The Lodger is not better known. I sat up until the small hours reading it, and my first reaction was to wonder why, when there are books like this about, anyone would bother reading modern period crime fiction. Not only because the novel itself is so good, but because a modern author, relying on research and bringing contemporary prejudices to the exercise, could not hope to get the nuances that are so effortlessly reproduced here. For example, one can immediately see why Buntings have failed to get lodgers just from the description of the furniture and interior decoration. They’ve taken a house in a “better” part of town to attract a “better” class of lodger, but the ugly secondhand Victorian furniture Mrs Bunting has filled it with (both because she can afford it, and because it will last—which indeed it does, because I’ve got a houseful of it) would clearly have been a total turnoff to her prospective clientele. Then there’s the Buntings’ precarious situation. Mr Bunting was a middle aged butler who married a middle aged maid. How could a modern author possibly latch onto the fact that their options are limited because positions in service for married couples are invariably for a manservant and cook?
The Lodger is available as an ebook in the Gaslight Crime series. I hope lovers of crime fiction are tempted to give it a go; it deserves to be better known.
(Note from Sophie: it’s also available as a paperback online)
Natalie Jane Prior is the author of many books, and is best known for the Lily Quench series, which has half a million copies in print around the world. Her most recent titles are the picture book Lucy’s Book and the picture story book The Fairy Dancers: Dancing Days, both illustrated by longtime collaborator, Cheryl Orsini.