A strange woman is a narrow gate. She also lieth in wait as for a prey . . . Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death.
A mysterious killer stalks the fog-shrouded streets of London, brutally murdering woman and signing himself The Avenger. And then a stranger shows up at the door of the Buntings, a couple with a room to rent. At first, this stranger seems a bit odd, but then tension mounts as suspicion builds. Why does the lodger turn pictures of women to face the wall? Why does he obsessively read the passages of the Bible that discuss the dangers of loose women? And . . . is that a red stain at the bottom of his cabinet . . .? In short, could the strange Mr. Sleuth and the brutal serial killer The Avenger be one and the same?
This novel has been put to film numerous times. The 1944 version is considered a classic, but the version most people are familiar with is the silent film from 1927, directed by a young, up-and-coming director by the name of Alfred Hitchcock. It wasn’t his first film, but it’s still something of a watershed; it was his first thriller.
This book is very clearly inspired by Jack the Ripper and Lowndes is excellent at conjuring atmosphere. The bulk of the book takes place inside the Buntings’ home, but there are sequences where we venture outside the home into the streets that seem perpetually shrouded in dense fog, even during the day. At night, when darkness descends and mixes with the fog, the streets feel decidedly dangerous, even terrifying.
Lowndes is also very good at conjuring interior lives for her characters. The main character of the book is Mrs. Bunting and for that alone, the book feels of interest. I can’t really recall another horror novel with a decidedly middle aged woman as a protagonist. There’s no shortage of female protagonists in the genre, but they’re always decidedly young. The book really gets inside Mrs. Bunting’s head, up to a certain point; it eventually starts to strain credulity that Mrs. Bunting is keeping her suspicions a secret, even from her husband, though there are the compelling interest of a steady financial income (the lodger arrives just as the Buntings are on the brink of absolute poverty) and also the fear that she’ll be thought insane.
Anyway, I’m definitely getting into spoilers here and I should say that the film and the novel diverge in some significant ways, so if you’ve seen the film, these will still be spoilers for the book. And also for the film if you haven’t seen it.
Regardless, the book has its thrills and its scenes of real tension. There’s a gripping dramatic passage where Mrs. Bunting goes to an inquest for one of the Avenger’s victims. And late in the book, Mr. Bunting, his suspicions finally beginning to mount, finds himself following his lodger through the empty, deathly quiet, fog-shrouded streets of early-morning London. That sequence in particular is almost unbearably suspenseful and, at moments, genuinely frightening as you expect, at any second, the lodger to loom out of the fog, bloody knife in hand.
The film version has a very intriguing twist in which the lodger turns out to be a man seeking revenge on the Avenger for the murder of his sister, which neatly explains all of the strange behavior. I expected the same here; the lodger even gives his name as Mr. Sleuth. But no, given that I was expecting a twist, the novel surprised me by not giving me one: the lodger is indeed the Avenger. The climactic scene where the Avenger and Mrs. Bunting come face to face, all pretense gone, the Avenger’s identity revealed beyond a shadow of a doubt, is genuinely breath-taking. It’s a moment of pure terror, the unveiling of the serial killer and his realization that his landlady knows his secret. The book gives us a brief glimpse into the psyche of the Avenger that’s fascinating and intriguing and then, in what must have seemed a very shocking twist at the time of the book’s publication, the novel ends with the Avenger escaping, thinking to himself as he goes that he has “so much avenging still to do.” The idea that the serial killer has moved out of London, but is doubtless headed for some other busy metropolis (we find out that London is the fourth city he’s terrorized) is quite disturbing and it actually sheds a much more grim light on the rest of the book. The way the Buntings keep their suspicions secret is all well and good if it turns out that the lodger isn’t the Avenger, but if it turns out that he IS, then one is lead to the unpleasant and inescapable conclusion that the Buntings are, in fact, responsible for quite a few murders, simply because they refused to report their suspicions to the police. Ultimately, the book ends up being extremely dark, not at all a pulpy thriller of the kind that were popular at the time.
The book certainly has flaws, particularly in the first half in which the book has a very repitious structure with Mrs. Bunting suspecting the lodger then deciding against it and then the lodger doing something creepy and Mrs. Bunting suspecting him again and then deciding against it and then etc. But the last third of the book or so is really quite brilliant.
Horror? Most assuredly. It’s our first serial killer novel, inspired by no less terrifying a figure than Jack the Ripper himself. The chills are mostly second-hand for a while, as grisly murders are carried out off screen. But I mentioned a few scenes in the spoiler section of the review that are quite visceral. A scene of Mr. Bunting taking a late stroll in the fog-shrouded streets is incredibly suspenseful and genuinely frightening. And that climactic scene? In that shocking moment alone, not to even say of the surprisingly dark things that follow, the book sends a shock of real fear into the heart.
Next time . . . well, did you know there used to be an entire genre of fiction dedicated solely to the proposition that Asian people were scary? It was called the Yellow Peril and next time we’ll get into the most famous and foundational book of that genre as we take a look at The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer. And it’s our first cross genre book; it appears on my horror list and also on my espionage list. We’ll see which one it fits in better next time.