“There fell on them, emerging now and again from the confused babel of hoarse shouts, the one clear word “Murder!”
Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel clearly influenced by the real-life Jack the Ripper murders was gripping and suspenseful. The suspense manifests itself from crafting a psychological mystery within the minds of the main characters.
The Lodger begins at a boarding house owned by the Buntings, a married couple that had spent their lives, up until then, in service. They haven’t had a paying lodger in ages, and the two have turned to pawning most of their belongings and going without food for long periods of time. It is also during the opening that information is revealed about a series of ghastly murders in the East End of London, which are perpetrated by a villain called “The Avenger.” When the Buntings are almost down to their last bit of money, they receive a visitor late at night. A strange man wrapped up in his heavy cloak comes seeking lodging. He agrees to pay a larger sum than is normally required with the promise that no one else shall board in the rooms.
Mrs. Bunting is terribly relieved about the new household income. This strange lodger, Mr. Sleuth, is surely a gentleman (at least in Mrs. Bunting’s eyes) and this is the excuse she gives herself any time she needs to rationalize his strange behavior (his daily “experiments,” his obsessive reading of the bible, his queer kind of fear and dislike of women, and his predilection for leaving the house only at late hours that coincide with the times of the murders). She is the one who has the most interaction with Mr. Sleuth, but her husband also has a wee bit. Independently from each other, both Buntings begin to have doubts about their lodger.
The book is more about the psychology of the Buntings–mostly Mrs. Bunting. Through her eyes, Belloc Lowndes is cooking up doubt and deception. With all of his strange behavior and schedule perfectly matching up with those of The Avenger’s murders, Mrs. Bunting refuses to admit that Mr. Sleuth is anything but a scholar and a gentleman. Each day unfolds with new strange behavior from the lodger. Belloc Lowndes writes with an acute sense of detail and the book is rich with information about the crimes sensationalized through the newspapers that Mr. Bunting buys throughout the day. Rarely, though, does the novel leave the inside of the boarding house, with the rare exception of Mrs. Bunting’s visit to the public police inquest. The mystery and intrigue are mostly confined to its walls, which give the reader a claustrophobic and paranoid feeling. I shan’t reveal anymore, because it would be a crime to give away the reveal (although, I do admit that the ending was very abrupt and I found myself rereading the final few paragraphs).
Also, in 1927, film audiences saw the Hitchcock adaptation that is extensive in its shadows and intrigue. The Lodger played by Ivor Novello is handsome, dark, and suave. The silent film relies on many plot points of the original book, but like most film adaptations, does veer away from the source material. With that said, however, I very much enjoyed the film, which can be watched for free in the public domain (it is remarkable that it remains intact and of good quality considering many early films have been lost or destroyed, re: London After Midnight). I urge you to watch the film, especially if you are a fan of Hitchcock or shadowy dark films in the German Expressionism vain. Although, I haven’t seen it, word on the street is that the 1944 adaptation is also a very good film.
Besides films, the book has also been adapted for radio series. The two I’ve listened to have Vincent Price and Peter Lorre as the lodger, respectively. They, too, are available to listen to for free in the public domain.
- Vincent Price offers a lodger who is slick and his voices gives the appearance of a gentleman scholar even when on the brink of losing it. @Hollywood Star Time (1946)
- Peter Lorre is far creepier. His voice lends less to a creeping psychopath, but more to a man cloaked in mania ready to burst at the seams. @Mystery in the Air (1947)
One last suggestion of supplemental works is the Spring 2011 article ‘Using a woman’s wit and cunning”: Marie Belloc Lowndes Rewrites the Ripper’ available in the Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies journal.