Surprise! Your tenant’s Jack the Ripper

The Lodger, a novel by Marie Belloc Loundes – written in 1913 – offers a unique spin on the gruesome Jack the Ripper murders. The story exposes the morals and attitudes of another era – yet also reveals that human nature hasn’t changed much over the years.

In The Lodger, landlady Ellen Bunting has fallen on hard times along with her husband. Their neighbourhood has deteriorated and they have been unable to rent their rooms to any tenants for a long time. Their savings are gone; they have resorted to selling jewellery and other items to get by, but even that option is coming to an end. In London, England in the 1880s, this is truly a tragedy as there are very few resources to aid the poor.

Then along comes a mysterious new lodger, Mr. Sleuth, a “gentleman” who offers to pay the Buntings his rent in advance. They are overjoyed and feel tremendous relief at their changing fortunes. Ellen Bunting takes good care of Mr. Sleuth, bringing him his meals and organizing his shopping. At first, she takes his eccentricities in stride; he constantly reads the Bible and rarely goes out.

At the same time, a serial murderer has been committing atrocities in the city, brutally stabbing women to death. Mrs. Bunting begins to get suspicious as to who the murderer is when she hears her new lodger sneaking outside in the middle of the night – and then hears of a fresh murder the following day. But since she needs his money so desperately, she tells no one, not even her husband.

The fascinating part of the story focuses on Ellen Bunting’s agonies over her secret suspicions – she convinces herself she is not quite sure that the lodger is the murderer – and her fears of what the lodger might do. She is afraid to leave family members alone in the house; she fears for her husband’s beautiful daughter from a previous marriage who comes for a visit. Ellen becomes ill, withdrawn and hysterical on occasion.

Readers feel sympathy for Ellen – her decision to keep her suspicions about her lodger to herself seem plausible because of her dire financial straits. The psychological drama of her attempts to deny the truth about her tenant add to the chilling horror of the murders, and the strain Ellen undergoes compels readers to read on to find out the resolution to her problem.

The compelling characters in The Lodger and the unique way Loundes blends their lives with the story of the Ripper make the book intriguing and relevant, even almost a century after it was written.

I would have preferred an ending that didn’t let the Buntings off the hook quite so completely – after all the agonizing, once the Ripper disappears both Buntings just move on with their lives.

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