Here’s an example of the book that isn’t especially well-written yet is compelling for both its oddity and because of the ‘air’ around it. Published in 1912, Marie Belloc Lowndes’ gaslit shocker is perhaps one of the first serial killer novels in the language. It’s an odd little book, as I say – largely melodrama, with a pinch of Edwardian domestic comedy and, at moments, some very uncomfortable psychological insight.
The story is straightforward: Robert and Ellen Bunting are a married couple who met in domestic service but have moved into running a lodging house – which they hope will see them into a comfortable old age. At the start of the novel, this plan isn’t working out. Their dingy establishment has no tenants and they are slipping inexorably from genteel poverty into full-on, inescapable destitution. Their pinched lives hold few distractions or entertainments. One they do have – or, at least, one which Robert wallows in – concerns an ongoing series of murders of women in the streets of London, in the hours of darkness. The gruesome crimes appear to be carried out by a single individual who identifies himself, through calling-cards left at each scene, as “The Avenger”. Robert’s vicarious thrills, gained through addiction to gorily excited tabloid newspaper reports, are supplemented by a friendship with Chandler, an earnest if not especially bright young detective involved with the case, whose snippets of insider knowledge guarantee him a welcome in the Bunting home, which in turn allows him to court Bunting’s daughter from a previous marriage, Daisy.
Just when the Buntings’ financial situation is at its most desperate, an unlikely saviour arrives in the form of “Mr Sleuth”, a gentleman who seeks lodgings and who, in return for discretion and privacy, is willing to pay handsomely.
I don’t think I’m ruining anything at all if I invite you to speculate as to The Lodger’s real identity and his reasons for needing so much quiet in which to carry out what he calls his “experiments”. If I throw in that he only leaves the house at night, returning before dawn and that, when we see him in his rooms, he is usually bent over a copy of The Bible, underlining some of the more up-and-at-‘em passages inciting misogynistic violence, you may well be ready to send for the Bow Street Runners.
The book isn’t a whodunit, though. If we know The Lodger is The Avenger from very early on, that doesn’t spoil the book; it adds to the atmosphere of claustrophobia built up with relish by an arch narrator. In particular, the kick of the book comes from Ellen’s slowly growing apprehension of the truth about the man upstairs – a man she reveres, blindly. She remains in denial as long as possible, even up to the point where the man himself spits the truth in her face during a comic, overly-coincidental denouement set – where else? – in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s.
It’s Ellen’s trembling, pathetic denial that gives the novel its curious mix of horror and comedy. As more murders are committed, and as her dullard husband sits in the shabby parlour and engages in more and more armchair detective work with Chandler, Ellen fights against the way the facts are pointing as she makes her way up the stairs carrying The Lodger’s dinner on a tray. Why does she not want to believe what’s obvious? We are offered a portrait of a woman who is bound by repression on a number of levels – most obviously sexually, yet also in terms of class-consciousness. The man upstairs, living under her roof, is clearly a gentleman, a man of quality. He has saved Ellen from poverty. He is a Bible-reading man, a man of propriety who treats her with rigid formality and is such a cut above the nastiness and vulgarity of modern life, as represented by her flighty step-daughter, Daisy:
When she was doing the staircase and landings she would often hear Mr Sleuth reading aloud to himself passages in The Bible that were very uncomplimentary to her sex. But Mrs Bunting had no very great opinion of her sister woman, so that didn’t put her out. Besides, where one’s lodger is concerned, a dislike of women is better than – well, than the other thing.
A kind of Stockholm syndrome-like attachment to Mr Sleuth develops in Ellen’s mind leading to some of the novel’s most interesting moments. She compromises herself with lies leading to more lies in order to cover up, for example, attending an inquest (posing as a family member) on one of the murder victims which confronts her with more evidence that points towards her lodger as the killer. Trying to keep the truth from herself starts to destroy Ellen, physically and emotionally. The sense of claustrophobia built up in the confines of the run-down boarding house is exploited well, with queasy moments of Ellen trying to confront her suspicions by going through Sleuth’s belongings or her terrified imaginings in the night where, as her husband snores on, she listens to the quiet steps in the hallway as the lodger comes and goes. Will the morning bring more headlines confirming a fresh murder? She hopes not. Yet she also hopes they will. She must hide her particular interest in the killings from her husband, feigning distaste for this constant source of conversation in their home.
It’s hugely entertaining for the most part, even if the conclusion is a ridiculous let-down. As I said before, it’s also a novel that gains from what surrounds it. I found about ‘The Lodger’ from two other books I had on the go at the same time which both mentioned it. One was a biography of Alfred Hitchcock in which I read about his 1926 film version of the novel, put out under the same name. It was Hitchcock’s first major critical and commercial success and, in large part, the first of his films in which his signature themes and stylistic touches can be seen. I haven’t seen it – though I plan to now, having read this novel – but I can see exactly why this must have spoken to Hitch. The claustrophobia, the grim comedy found in the mechanics of murder, the sniggering delight in the voyeurism and prurience only just hidden beneath the surface of conventional morality – it’s all there. At a number of points – especially when Mr Bunting hand-rubbingly dwells on the tiny details of the latest killing and the streets are full of newspaper sellers calling out the latest sordid suggestions – I was put in mind of the scenes in Hitchcock’s penultimate film, “Frenzy”, where solidly respectable London citizens discuss, down the pub, the “Neck Tie Killer” and comment approvingly on how good it is to have a series of decent sex-killings on the go again.
The second prompt towards this novel came from a not dissimilar direction. In Judith Flanders’ brilliant “The Invention of Murder”, which looks at the development of crime-stories, their reporting, their reception and their cultural impact during the nineteenth century, “The Lodger” is discussed as one of the after-shocks of the Ripper killings in the late 1880s. Many of the novel’s details draw on the potent folk-mythology of Jack The Ripper and there’s a strong sense that, 30 years after those killings, the contemporary reader will recognise much of what Belloc Lowndes alludes to – especially the fevered atmosphere of press-sponsored hysteria.
If you love the indulgence afforded by slipping into a book where London is cotton-wooled in impenetrable fog, through which gas lamps gleam faintly and cloaked terrors swish away into the sinful labyrinth of narrow streets, this is a treat – and it has just enough to give you a bit more than the safely packaged chills of a costumed melodrama.