Thursday, June 25, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Lodger

The other night on his fine blog British novelist Martin Edwards wrote a piece about The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Among the book's admirers was Ernest Hemingway. The book was the basis for the the first "true Hitchcock" film as Hitch himself called it. I guess he looked at the previous ones as warm-up acts.

The set-up for the Lodger is standard stuff by now. In Victorian London a serial killer is loose. An impoverished couple takes in a lodger. Soon enough the wife begins to wonder if the lodger is the killer. Here's what I wrote Martin:

"The Lodger still works for me. The atmospherics are as compelling as the characters, this impoverished world of eternal and foggy night while an unknown killer stalks the London streets. I haven't read anything else by her but your mention of her letters containing few references to mystery writing doesn't surprise me. For all the chiller-diller stuff--as Ruth Rendell would call it--the book escapes the familiar by giving us a rich look at the lives of the husband and wife and their sad lives in poverty. This, to me, drives the book as much as The Lodger himself."

The Lodger gives the readers a visceral sense of Victorian London. The homely details of everyday life make the cunning and cruelty of the killer all the more real. In a few places the horror of the streets remind me of Jack London's mental collapse while spending time in and around Whitechapel (he later wrote about his time there). And yet this is played off beautifully against the placid, quietly desperate home lives of the married couple. It is rich true portraiture.

As Martin and a few of his respondents pointed out, Lowndes is frequently overlooked in histories of mystery fiction. I've never been sure why. She was certainly a far better writer, as someone pointed out, than Mary Roberts Rinehart and her imitators. In fact, though I claim no expertise, she was to me the most exciting chiller-diller writer until the great Elizabeth Sanxay Holding came along a quarter century later. And I'm sure that Holding, with her unnerving mixture of the homely and the phantasmagoric, doubtless read and studied Lowndes.

For me The Lodger is timeless, a true classic.


Martin Edwards said...

Interesting link with Holding, Ed. Based on your advocacy of her work, I've finally tracked down one of her books.

Anonymous said...

Read The Lodger on Project Gutenberg recently. The first half of the book is very well done but the ending is pathetically feeble. The moral consequences of protecting a serial killer for financial reasons are not dealt with at all.