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the lodger

21 december 2018

I was led to Marie Belloc Lowndes' Lodger by Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. Specifically, by an interchange that Hemingway reported in A Moveable Feast, where Stein recommended reading genre fiction while trying to write in more literary modes. Good genre fiction, naturally, full of economical writing and clean storytelling. One of her prescriptions was The Lodger, and Hemingway endorsed it.

The Lodger is a crime novel inspired by Jack the Ripper, though it was written a generation after the Whitechapel murders. In Belloc Lowndes' novel, London is gripped by panic, as a serial killer dispatches a string of prostitutes and party girls. He calls himself "The Avenger" and particularly disapproves of promiscuity and drink. As the furor approaches a peak, a couple of former servants in reduced circumstances takes in a polite, well-heeled, but eccentric lodger. "Mr. Sleuth," as the lodger calls himself, doesn't drink, isn't fond of women, and tends to walk the streets between two and five every morning.

In other words, if you suspect a connection between The Lodger and The Avenger, you may be onto something. There is no mystery about the equivalence of the two men. Deftly, Belloc Lowndes transfers the suspense of the novel onto the ripening suspicions of the couple who host the Lodger. At first it seems absurd that the retiring, pious, generally mild-mannered Mr. Sleuth could have any connection to the killings. Not just because of his personality, but because he is a "gentleman." English criminological profiling c1913 necessarily included a precise class assignment of the suspect. And the Avenger killings seem to be the work of some low haunter of public houses – perhaps a sailor – best of all, of course, a foreigner.

At one point, though, a primeval profiler writes into the papers and does propose a more genteel identity for the Avenger.

He is the husband of a dipsomaniac wife. She is, of course, under care, and is never mentioned in the house where he lives, maybe with his widowed mother and perhaps a maiden sister. … Picking out a likely victim, he approaches her with Judas-like gentleness, and having committed his awful crime, goes quietly home again. After a good bath and a breakfast, he turns up happy, once more the quiet individual … (Chapter 11)
Like so many profiles in both fiction and reality, this one is close on many counts and distant on others. It does show that the concept of profiling was present at least in one novelist's imagination in 1913 (and in fact was nascent even in the Ripper year of 1888). I opined when reviewing Rennie Airth's River of Darkness that the profiling done in that novel (set in the early 1920s) was anachronistic, but it was apparently contemporary enough (if more seat-of-the-pants than as practiced today).

The amateur profiler in The Lodger signs himself "Gaboriau," in a nice intertextual allusion to the grandparent of all European crime fiction. He also cites Jekyll and Hyde – and throughout Belloc Lowndes' novel, we have a sense that the context for the story is partly reality and partly crime fiction itself. Mr. Bunting, the Lodger's landlord, is an avid reader of detective stories. Joe Chandler, the policeman who courts Bunting's daughter, is wont to show up in disguises that would do justice to Sherlock Holmes – or to Gaboriau's own M. Lecoq.

As both Buntings become more and more sure that the Lodger and the Avenger are the same person, they become irrationally protective of him. This is in part because they're in denial, in part because Mrs. Bunting has what Belloc Lowndes thinks of as a natural female protectiveness towards men in her care, and in part (as Mr. Bunting sees things) because if their situation became public

it would track them to their dying day, and, above all, make it quite impossible for them ever to get again into a good joint situation. (Chapter 24)
Which almost seems like a reasonable concern till you realize that Bunting has his young daughter staying under the same roof as his serial killer.

The plot that works itself around the Avenger's atrocities and the Buntings' protectiveness towards the Lodger is really a masterpiece, subtle, creepy, and relentless. In particular, the ending of the book, which I am certainly not about to spoil, is very fine. Any reader is going to project possible conclusions onto this material, some of them melodramatic, some cynical, some farcical. The actual ending is none of those things, and stays in tone and tempo with the body of the novel. The Lodger is really fine fiction, and I recommend it to anyone interested in crime stories or in the construction of narrative.

UPDATE 04.26.23: The Lodger was adapted as an opera in 1960 by composer Phyllis Tate and librettist David Franklin. Like so many mid-20th-century operas, it came and went; but not before record-company executive Richard Itter of Lyrita had made an archival recording from a 1964 BBC broadcast. You can hear the results on a 2015 Lyrita CD, which is also streamable from several different sources.

Tate was a contemporary of Benjamin Britten, and as with Britten's Billy Budd, the recording of her Lodger might as well be an audiobook of the novel. The singing is in crystal-clear English, the music atmospheric and ominous while avoiding melodramatic clichés. Especially exciting in The Lodger is the first-act finale. A "Cockney" song is heard, and then the Lodger, fresh from a new murder, begins to chant a crazy Biblical invocation. Then the Cockney song re-enters, at a slower tempo, and builds to crescendo in counterpoint against the Lodger's murderous ecstasy. Great stuff.

Lowndes, Marie Belloc. The Lodger. 1913. iBooks.