Friday, July 31, 2015

Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger (1911)

Lowndes, Marie Belloc, The Lodger, McClure Magazine, January 1911
______, The Lodger, 1913
______, The Lodger, New York: Dell Books, 19 (my edition, pictured)

The Lodger at Goodreads
The Lodger at IBList

Rating: 8/10

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Evan Lewis's blog.

The literary myth surrounding Marie Belloc Lowndes's most famous work is that it stemmed from a dinner party conversation. Someone reported that they knew of a former cook and butler who temporarily housed the Whitechapel Murderer, today better known as Jack the Ripper. First published in 1911, just under a quarter of a century after the infamous crimes, Lowndes's novel reflects an interest in that particular scenario and hence does not focus primarily on its titular character. Instead, it focuses on the aging and struggling couple and their strained relationship more than it does on the crimes and the killer. This is to the novel's benefit, as the tense relationship does more to enhance the murders than would any amount of blood.

Moreover, the work acts as an interesting position on the actual crimes: it was written early enough to have avoided the modern Ripper canon, so that there are more murders attributed to the moniker. It also appeared at a time when censorship prohibited any kind of accurate description of the Ripper's brutal slayings. No dismembered corpses and displaced organs; just a little bit of blood.

It is no wonder that, though I read the novel as a teenager in the anthology of Jack the Ripper stories, Red Jack (Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh & Frank D. McSherry, jr., eds, NY: DAW Books, 1988), I had absolutely no recollection of it. At that age I was seeking the thrills of suspense, violence and surprise endings, and probably wasn't even aware of the incredible tension generated by the protagonists: landlords Robert and Ellen Bunting. The Buntings are retired butler and cook, and in their retirement age are suffering from poverty, from years of repressed emotion, and from memories of past glory. The presence of this mysterious and eccentric lodger, Mr. Sleuth, who might be responsible for the recent spate of killings attributed to a serial killer known as the Avenger, acts as a kind of personification of the troubles between man and wife.

Lowndes's prose is gaslit: dark and hazy, tight and claustrophobic. Immediately the gloom is established, the room cozy yet in a "grimy" London neighbourhood, where the focus on our heroes is in light of their poverty. Effective too is the contrast between husband and wife: Mr. Bunting is "leaning back in a deep leather arm-chair," while Mrs. Bunting is "sitting up in an uncomfortable straight-backed chair." This contrast is important as it accurately delineates the characters, and might as well be describing how they are settled within their own skins. Whereas Mr. Bunting is mostly relaxed and easy-going, Mrs. Bunting is a ball of anxiety. It is she who first suspects that their Lodger might be the Avenger, and she clutches at this secret though it makes her incredibly tight and wound up, bordering on a nervous breakdown. Mr. Bunting only suspects their lodger fairly late in the narrative, and while he too becomes unbearably nervous, it is clear that his wife has the strongest sensibility and is better able to cope with the anxieties, though unfortunately she releases steam by snapping at her devoted ans sensitive husband.

Mrs. Bunting can come across as unlikeable in her extreme treatment of her easygoing husband, yet there is the understanding that this side of her is a result of the stresses of poverty, heightened by the suspicion she is housing a serial murderer. Most interesting in her characterization is an instinctive, irrational need in the early part of the text to defend her lodger. While part of this is denial that Mr. Sleuth is a killer, there is a side of her that feels compelled to protect the man. Having been servant and servient throughout her career, she harbours a sense of responsibility to the man whose basic household needs she is catering to. All this despite the guilt--and in this she is guilty--of allowing the Avenger to commit more murders. In protecting his identity she is an accomplice to the deaths that occur during his stay at her home. An unlikeable character who is accomplice to murder makes for a unique protagonist, and this heightens the novel both in interest and in complexity, a work well in advance and subtlety than Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (though in fairness the two are mostly incomparable).

Other characters are less dimensional. Mr. Bunting has some level of complexity, though this is primarily in light of his relationship with Ellen Bunting, for otherwise he has a fairly fixed personality to comply with his role in the novel. His niece and her lover, local policeman Joe Chandler, exist primarily to break the tensions of the story, to offer some light amid the gloom, and with their blossoming romance, some sense of a possible positive future. In addition, Chandler is required in order to share information with both the Buntings and the reader, to hypothesize and to increase certain elements of tension, such as the lodger's abhorrence of visitors to the house. The lodger himself, Mr. Sleuth, is a mysterious, anxious eccentric who is fairly stock, though it is his stockness within these qualities that makes him suit his role.

A novel for which much can be written and through several angles, and one I will certainly revisit.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Suicide Club (1882)

Stevenson, Robert Louis, The Suicide Club, London: Chatto & Windus, 1882

The Suicide Club at Goodreads
The Suicide Club at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

The three novelettes that make up Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club are interlinked tales that form a part of his New Arabian Nights project. Along with the second cycle of stories in the first volume of New Arabian Nights, these stories were originally published in London Magazine between June and October of 1878. New Arabian Nights collected tales modeled after the Thousand and One Nights, only here it is the narrator (Stevenson) transcribing tales recounted to him by an "Arabian author." The stories are certainly inspired by the format of the original Arabian Nights, which collects a large number of stories and fragments, some interrelated while others standalone (though this depends on which version is at hand since most translations feature selections from the tales rather than the complete works). Though there are allusions to the past, Stevenson's stories are distinctly wrapped up in Victorian conventions and are an important chapter in the development of the Victorian mystery, and by extension the development of the mystery genre. These works are also important forerunners in the evolution of the modern short story.

The Suicide Club is a triptych of individual narratives focusing on separate characters, while interlinking a single main plot. The concept is excellent, though Stevenson's aim is adventure rather than mystery or moral conundrum, both of which are serious potential avenues. To the modern reader this is unfortunate, since the strengths of each of these stories is the heightened suspense and mystery. Despite the emphasis on adventure, the three tales are nonetheless enjoyable and certainly well written.

Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts
First published in London Magazine, 1878

Seeking adventure, Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his friend Colonel Geraldine, enter an oyster bar in disguise. Boredom is soon alleviated with the appearance of a young man offering patrons cream tarts. Some accept the pastries while others decline, and in the cases where the pastries are not accepted, the young man must himself eat the tart. Curious, the two friends seek the young man's acquaintance and take an immediate liking to him. Through this encounter they learn of a Suicide Club, an organization that caters to men wishing to put an end to their lives.

The strongest part of the story is its middle. The opening is certainly original but the logic is at times lacking, whereas the end is plunged into adventure and hinges on some plot conveniences. The middle, however, is well paced and builds itself nicely in revealing the method in which the victim is selected. It also contains the most interesting character of any of the stories, a certain Mr. Malthus.

Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk
First published in London Magazine, 1878

While the previous story's best portion is its second third, the second story's strength is in its third. With somewhat comical tone we are introduced to Silas Q. Scuddamore, a moody American from Bangor, Maine, whose uncertain emotions deliver him into a conniving plot. Silas Scuddamore manages to get wrapped up in having to dispose of a corpse, and due to his sensitive nature, this makes for a strong sequence with a Saratoga trunk.

Interestingly, the title is not entirely accurate in the sense that the story is not about the physician and is clearly not his story. The trunk, however, and more accurately its contents, does play a large role. It should instead be titled "Story of the American and the Saratoga Trunk." Or "Story of the American Tourist and The Bohemian Corpse."

The Adventures of the Hansom Cab
First published in London Magazine, 1878

The final story's best portion is its beginning. In fact, the opening to "The Adventures of the Hansom Cab" is one of the better introductions to any story I have come across for some time. A man is picked up by a cab and brought over to a house where a party is being held. It appears the host has sent several cabs throughout London to find single gentlemen and deliver them to the house. Our curious and brave protagonist attends the party, and hiding behind some curtains (a classic trope), he watches as the host slowly sends guests away on the pretext that their invitation was a misunderstanding. The gentleman's involvement with the remainder of the plot begs the reader to wonder at the need for such a hyperbolic ruse, but the first portion of the story is so strong that we can forgive the rest when it begins to falter.

Since each story has a stronger third, it might be interesting to re-visit this work and create a version that begins with the Hansom Cab, continues with the Cream Tarts, and finished with the Saratoga Trunk. Of course there would be no resolution to the main plot, but even Stevenson rushed his own resolution via an odd decision. The final conflict, a dual between our Bohemian prince and the president of the Suicide Club, is presented away from the action, with two minor characters waiting to know who comes up victorious. Potentially tense, the scene lacks suspense as it is brief, not to mention that it is obvious which party will come out victorious, and which will fall at the blade of the sword.

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As of 24 December 2015