The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

A deadly dilemma…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mr and Mrs Bunting are becoming desperate. Having left domestic service to run their own lodging house, they’ve had a run of bad luck and are now down to their last few shillings with no way to earn more unless they can find a lodger for their empty rooms. So when a gentleman turns up at their door offering to pay a month’s rent in advance, they are so relieved they overlook the odd facts that Mr Sleuth has no luggage and asks them not to take up references. He seems a kindly, quiet gentleman, if a little eccentric, and the Buntings are happy to meet his occasionally odd requests. Meantime, London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. The murderer leaves his calling card on the bodies – a triangular slip of paper pinned to their clothes with the words “The Avenger” written on it…

Well, what a little gem this one turned out to be! Written in 1913, it’s clearly inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders but with enough changes to make it an original story in its own right. It’s the perspective that makes it so unique – the Buntings are just an ordinary respectable little family struggling to keep their heads above water, who suddenly find themselves wondering if their lodger could possibly be living a double life as The Avenger. Lowndes does a brilliant job of keeping that question open right up to the end – I honestly couldn’t decide. Like the Buntings, I felt that though his behaviour was deeply suspicious, it was still possible that he was simply what he seemed – an eccentric but harmless loner. With the constant hysteria being whipped up by the newspapers, were the Buntings (and I) reading things into his perfectly innocent actions? Of course, I won’t tell you the answer to that!

Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927

The book isn’t simply a question of whether Mr Sleuth is The Avenger or not, though. What Lowndes does so well is show the dilemma in which Mrs Bunting in particular finds herself. It’s not long before she begins to suspect her lodger – his strange habit of taking occasional nocturnal walks, his reading aloud from the Bible when he’s in his room alone, always the passages that are less than complimentary about women, the exceptionally weird and suspicious fact that he’s a teetotal vegetarian (I’ve always been dubious myself about people who don’t like bacon sandwiches…), the mysterious bag that he keeps carefully locked away from prying eyes. And then there are the “experiments” he conducts on the gas stove in his room, usually when he’s just come back from one of his little walks…

….Mrs Bunting returned to the kitchen. Again she lighted the stove; but she felt unnerved, afraid of she knew not what. As she was cooking the cheese, she tried to concentrate her mind on what she was doing, and on the whole she succeeded. But another part of her mind seemed to be working independently, asking her insistent questions.
….The place seemed to her alive with alien presences, and once she caught herself listening – which was absurd, for, of course, she could not hope to hear what Mr Sleuth was doing two, if not three, flights upstairs. She wondered in what the lodger’s experiments consisted. It was odd that she had never been able to discover what it was he really did with that big gas-stove. All she knew was that he used a very high degree of heat.

But, on the other hand, there’s nothing definite to say he’s the killer, and Mrs Bunting rather likes him, and feels sorry for him since he seems so vulnerable somehow. And, just as importantly, the Buntings rely totally on the rent he pays. Lowndes starts the book with a description of the extreme worry and stress the Buntings have been under over money, which makes their reluctance to report their suspicions so much more understandable. For what if they go to the police, and it turns out he’s innocent? He’ll leave, of course, and what will they do then? But what if he’s guilty and they do nothing – does that make them guilty too? It really is brilliantly done – great characterisation and totally credible psychologically.

Marie Belloc Lowndes

The other aspect Lowndes looks at is the role of the newspapers in whipping up a panic (perhaps not undeservedly in this instance), printing lurid details of the horrific murders, and giving out little bits of dodgy information as if they are facts. The Buntings have a young friend, Joe, who’s on the police force, so they get access to more of the truth, though the police are thoroughly baffled. As the murders mount up, so does the tension, and we see both of the Buntings becoming more and more obsessed with reading every detail of the case, desperately hoping for something that will prove their suspicions wrong.

The story is dark and sinisterly creepy but the gore is all left to the imagination, and the tone is lightened in places by a nice little romance between Joe and Mr Bunting’s daughter, Daisy. It’s very well written and Lowndes, like so many writers of that era, has made great use of the notorious London fogs to provide cover for dark and dastardly deeds. One where I really did spend the entire time wondering what I would have done, and fearing for the poor Buntings – no wonder Hitchcock used this as the basis for his first big success back in the silent movie era. But will the movie live up to the book? I’ll find out soon…

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58 thoughts on “The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

    • Movie review next week, I hope! Yes, I don’t think he was making soup either. These vegetarians are all a suspicious bunch… *checks to make sure Lady Fancifull isn’t listening*

  1. Great review, intriguing story, succinct and cheap on Kindle – no resistance! I’m looking forward to this bit of sinister creepiness!

    • Thank you! Ooh, I hope you enjoy it! It’s great being able to these classics so easily for Kindle these days – gives them a chance to be read by whole new generations. Do let me know how you get on with it, won’t you? 🙂

      • This was a gem! It’s quite a powerful story with very human dilemmas at the heart of it. I too was uncertain if the Lodger and Avenger were one and the same until the end. After finishing the story, I wondered if this was a more modern sensibility leading me to second guess where the plot was leading. Whether or not a reader last century would have had the same experience or have been more inclined to accept the Lodger’s guilt earlier, Lowndes’ writing has enough depth and skill to be a great story under either reading. Thanks for the recommendation – days after finishing the story, I still have quite vivid, though London foggy, images from it, as well as a strong sense of Mrs Bunting’s quiet strength.

        • Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It’s one that’s still running in my head too, especially Mrs Bunting who I think is one of those really unforgettable characters. Interesting thought about whether we read it differently to people at the time – I don’t know really. And like you, I felt it would have worked either way – the real story is about the Buntings and their moral dilemma more than the actual murders, I felt. I’m just about to read a short story by her, so I’m intrigued to see if she reaches the same standards or if this is a one off – certainly it seems to be the one that is most remembered. And I do recommend the Hitchcock film… 😀

  2. This sounds like it keeps you on the edge of your seat. I’ll be checking my box of Hitchcock movies later to see if I have it. If I do, I don’t think I’ll watch it alone. (I, too, am suspicious of vegetarians!) Thanks for a great write-up.

    • I watched the movie just after I wrote the review – it’s great too, though as usual Hitchcock has given the story his own spin. I hope you have it, and enjoy it! 🙂

  3. That is a classic of suspense, isn’t it, FictionFan? I like the way the Buntings are presented, too – nice, ordinary people who get drawn into something that may or may not be horrible. That creeping suspicion is done so well, I think. I also very much liked the depiction of London at the time. It adds much to the moodiness of the story. Glad you enjoyed this as much as you did.

    • So great – I’m glad I finally got around to reading it after it sitting on my TBR for a couple of years at least! I loved the characterisation, especially of poor Mrs Bunting, and I thought the way she showed the worry of respectable poverty was brilliantly done. And mysterious figures appearing out of the fog… ooh! 😀

    • I’ve had it on my TBR for at least a couple of years but it definitely deserves to be shoved up your priority list! 😉 When you do get to it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 😀

  4. I read this a long time ago – it’s one of those that stays in the mind. I haven’t seen the film though, I’ll await your review with interest.

  5. Ooohhh this sounds like a really good book! I love the fact that you don’t discover the truth until the very end. And I also agree with your suspicion re: vegetarians, it’s just not natural (haha).

  6. Oh that London fog was a brilliant way to hide dastardly deeds – this does sound exceptionally well done all that suspicion and the media stoking its flames – looking forward to seeing how the film grabs you!

    • I love books set in the London fog – how dare they clean up the air?? 😉 This is a great little book though, and the film is… nah, you’ll just have to wait! Review Wednesday if I get it drafted in time…

    • It is creepy, but in that good old-fashioned way of not TOO creepy. They seemed to like tingling the spine back then, rather than giving people outright heart failure… 😉

    • Yes, it’s hard to think of Hitchcock as young somehow, isn’t it? The book’s great, and the film is… well, you’ll find out when I review it… 😉

  7. Oh, I absolutely have to read this. Right up my street 🙂 I also am highly suspicious of those who don’t like bacon sandwiches, although also secretly pleased because – all the more for me!!

    • You would love this one, I’m sure! Hahaha – good way to look at it! I shall attempt to persuade those around me to become vegetarian immediately… 😉

    • They’re very different, but both do the suspense and creepiness really well. I always tend to prefer the book, but in this case I really loved both.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 😀

  8. This sounds delightful! Does the book answer the question of the lodger’s identity? For some reason, I had the impression that even at the end it was left ambiguous.

    I especially was intrigued by what you wrote about the psychology of the Buntings in regards to their dilemma about whether to report him or not. It’s always so intriguing when situations are presented that way and show why it’s not always obvious in life what the right thing to do is.

    • The book does, though there are still some ambiguities even so, The film has completely different ambiguities!

      It’s that aspect of the dilemma that Hitchcock doesn’t really address, and it was that that I thought made the book work so well. You always had to be aware that the Buntings could be plunged back into desperation if they lost their lodger and it made their behaviour much more understandable. Really, a very good psychological study, I thought.

  9. I can’t wait to read your movie comparison! It’s entirely possible you’ve already published that review; I’m a bit behind on my reading. I really like the idea that a book can create tension just through newspapers. Surely the owners are looking for some description or way to confirm that the lodgers time out matches the time of the murder. How exciting, especially when compared to the instantaneous access to news today. I’ll have to check this book out–it looks like my library has the movie and the audiobook!

    • Yes, it’s already up, but no rush – the spoiler is the movie’s great too! That’s exactly what they were doing – hoping for something to prove one way or another if he could be the Avenger. I love books set before the days of technology – everything happens too fast now for proper suspense to build up. Ooh, if you do read or watch it, I hope you enjoy it! Make sure your library’s version is the restored film – if not, there’s a great version on youtube – the link’s on my film post. 😀

      • Okay, you’re not going to believe this, but I just learned I own the film! My husband bought a DVD with 20 Hitchcock movies at a used movie store, but hide it from me because he realized the movies don’t have subtitles, which I need because I don’t hear well, and felt bad because he didn’t check first (the used movie place does zero returns). The Lodger is a silent film! 😃

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