The Lodger

(I am back in school for the next few weeks so expect that columns will post a little erratically and be a little shorter than usual.)

The Lodger by Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes is one of many free novels I grabbed from Amazon for my Kindle, and is also available from a variety of other sources including Project Gutenberg. Written in 1913 the novel was a surprise to me as I thought that thrillers that relied on psychological suspense were a more recent invention. I was happy to have been proved wrong.

The book was the most popular of Ms. Lowndes many stories and has been filmed five times, including a silent version done by Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense. The most recent adaptation was in 2009 with Simon Baker of The Mentalist fame portraying the eponymous Lodger.

The novel begins with a married couple, the Buntings, in deep financial distress. Both of them are retired servants, who met and married on the job. After leaving service they tried to run a boarding house in a vacation town but they had troubles and are now back in London, with very little money and no resources.

Their new plan had been to rent a house and take in lodgers, providing meals and cleaning as well as the rooms. But once again they have run into problems and the class of people they wanted are not coming around. Instead they have run into some swindlers and others who didn't pay the rent, leaving them in even more trouble. Now they are selling off their furniture and everything else that makes their home nice, making it even more unlikely that they will be able to attract the type of lodgers they long for.

Mr. Bunting has had to give up his tobacco and his newspaper, leaving him with very little to occupy his time. Mrs. Bunting is similarly stressed and the two of them have become reserved and distant from one another. They are down to their very last bit of money, and only have that because Mrs. Bunting has sold another valuable. She has no idea how she is going to continue feeding them or how they will keep a roof over their heads.

Mr. Bunting takes a penny from their tiny store of cash and goes out to buy a newspaper, which he knows they cannot afford, in order to read the details about the latest in a series of grisly murders done by someone calling himself the Avenger. This person murders women who drink and pins a note on their clothing signed the Avenger. Mr. Bunting has always been interested in mysteries and stories of the macabre and he feels he must have this newspaper.

Mrs. Bunting is at the point of losing hope and she reflects that even if by some miracle someone offered Mr. Bunting a job, temp or otherwise, he could not take it because they have had to pawn his dress things. What will become of them?

And then, just as she is about to give up all hope, someone comes to the door and asks to see the rooms. An odd-looking gentleman called Mr. Sleuth (a name that kept jarring me), the potential tenant wants to rent both of the top two floors in their entirety. He wants to use the top floor, which is now quite sparsely furnished, to do his experiments and he wants to live on the second floor. He pays Mrs. Bunting for several weeks in advance, along with money for food and so that she can pick up a few items for him while she's shopping.

This money is salvation for the Buntings. They can cancel the sale of the furniture and have a little cushion against future problems. The longer the lodger stays the bigger that cushion will be so Mrs. Bunting is very eager to make him as comfortable as possible. She thinks he is somewhat eccentric but as he's a gentleman she doesn't pry into his business.

Meanwhile Joe Chandler, a police officer friend of the family, is coming around to chat about crime with Mr. Bunting and in hopes of running into Mr. Bunting's daughter Daisy, who lives elsewhere but is coming for a visit.

Mr. Sleuth has not lived in the house for long when Mrs. Bunting begins to suspect that he is the Avenger. He has a big leather bag that would be perfect for carrying the murder weapon around and he wears rubber soled shoes when he goes out, making him silent in the heavy fog. (Apparently quiet shoes were rare at the time, before the popularity of running, tennis and basketball shoes.)

Mrs. Bunting is torn between her civic duty and her desperate need to keep the lodger, whose rent money is keeping her and her husband out of the workhouse. She is also afraid of what might happen if the lodger is left alone with Daisy and works diligently to keep them apart. Joe, the police officer, regales the family with details of the Avenger, supplying Mrs. Bunting with more fodder for her fears and anxiety.

The Lodger is a book I enjoyed very much. I liked the historical details and the dramatic suspense. While the idea of a landlady protecting, concealing or just not acting on her suspicions of a prolific murderer may seem outlandish, Ms. Lowndes draws an excellent psychological profile of a woman immobilized by indecision. While the story lacks the overt suspense popular in much of today's thrillers, where someone is in immediate danger and the hero is working against the clock to prevent it, the stakes are still high enough in the Lodger to keep this reader engaged. Mrs. Bunting doesn't just juggle the options of going to the police with her fears or staying silent; she also struggles to keep her concerns from her husband and Joe.

The weirdest thing about the book? How much Mr. Sleuth resembled my memory of Sherlock Holmes' description in the original stories. He wears an Inverness cape and is tall, thin and lanky. Add that to his last name of Sleuth and I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Was it going to be a mash-up of Holmes and the Ripper?

You can find the Lodger for free online in a number of places, including Amazon, Project Gutenberg, Barnes and Nobles and Google Books.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a true story about odd wills. One gentleman decreed that his dollars be left to whichever woman could give birth to the most children in the next ten years. (Talk about trying to manipulate women's lives.) You can read the whole piece here: