Residents Are More Than Welcome*

Boarding HousesIt can be a challenge to find a place to live, especially if you don’t have much in the way of means, or if you’re not planning to be in a place long enough to purchase property. And in times past, it wasn’t considered appropriate for, especially, young ladies to live on their own. So boarding houses and homes that offer lodging had real appeal. There were a variety of them, too, ranging from seedy and dangerous to luxurious.

You don’t see boarding houses and lodging places as much as in the past, although they’re still there. And the arrangement does make sense. The homeowner gets extra income; the lodger gets less expensive accommodations and, depending on the arrangement, meals. Boarding houses also make for effective settings and contexts for crime fiction. That makes sense too, when you consider the variety of different personalities, and the conflicts that can come up.

One of the more famous lodgings in crime fiction is of course 221B Baker Street, where Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes lodges. His landlady is Mrs. Hudson, who’s gotten accustomed to his eccentric ways, although they are unusual. In fact in stories such as The Adventure of the Empty House, she is helpful to Holmes in his cases. In that particular adventure, Holmes is targeted by an associate of his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and wants to lay a trap for the man who’s been trying to kill him. So he has a bust of himself placed in his sitting room. Then, he has Mrs. Hudson move the bust at certain intervals, so that it looks as though he’s actually there. In that way, Holmes and Dr. Watson are able to catch the would-be assassin.

Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger, introduces us to Ellen and Robert Bunting, who’ve retired from domestic service. They don’t have much in the way of income, and have decided to open their home to a lodger. However, Ellen Bunting is quite particular about the kind of person she’ll allow to live in her home, so their extra space has gone unused for some time. Then one day, a man who calls himself Mr. Sleuth applies for the room. He seems to be ‘a gentleman,’ and has quiet habits, so the arrangement is made and he moves in. The Buntings soon learn that Mr. Sleuth is a little eccentric, but he doesn’t cause them trouble. More to the point, he pays well and on time. In the meantime, the Buntings have been anxiously following the story of several murders that have occurred in London, all committed by a killer calling himself The Avenger. Very slowly, Ellen Bunting begins to wonder whether her lodger may in fact be The Avenger. She doesn’t want to admit it at first, because she and her husband really need the income they get from Mr. Sleuth’s residence there. But before long, she’s faced with the reality that she may be shielding a killer.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, Dr. Gideon Fell is faced with a very strange boarding-house mystery. An apparently homeless man has been stabbed to death in the home of clockmaker Johannes Carver, who has opened his home to boarders. The victim isn’t what he seems though; instead, he is a police detective named Ames, who’d come to the boarding house to arrest one of the lodgers for a prior shoplifting incident. Of course, this is a Carr mystery, so the solution is not as simple as a thief who kills to avoid being arrested. As Fell looks into the matter, we see the different kinds of things that can happen in a boarding house…

There’s always a certain amount of risk when you open your home to boarders. So in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, no-one is shocked when James Bentley is arrested for the murder of his landlady Mrs. McGinty, who was a charwoman. Bentley didn’t fit in well in the village of Broadhinny anyway, and everyone is quick to believe that he is guilty. But Superintendent Spence, who in fact investigated the murder for the police, has come to believe that Bentley may be innocent. He’s been assigned to another case, so he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. When Poirot begins to ask questions, he soon learns that Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out things about the people whose homes she cleaned. When she learned something that was too dangerous for her to know, she paid the price for it. Fans of this novel will also know that Poirot himself takes a room in a guest house called Long Meadows. It’s run by two very – erm – unsophisticated owners, Maureen and Johnnie Summerhayes. Some of the scenes that take place at Long Meadows are (at least in my opinion) really funny, just because of the difference between Poirot’s expectations and habits and the Summerhayes’ approach to running the place.

Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down explores the lodging/boarding relationship as well. Mix Cellini takes rooms in a house owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. He doesn’t find his landlady particularly appealing; she’s mentally unsound, and as we learn about her history, we see why. And the feeling of distaste is mutual, since Cellini has plenty of his own issues. He’s got a host of phobias and obsessions that make him a difficult person. But the two do need each other financially, so they make an arrangement. Cellini’s job is repairing exercise equipment; that’s how he meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He soon becomes obsessed with her, and that obsession begins to take over his life. So does his obsession with notorious killer Dr. Richard Christie…

Some of Charlotte MacLeod’s Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn novels have a boarding house context. As that series begins, Kelling is a widow who’s decided to open her Boston home to boarders (Bittersohn is one of those boarders). She’s a ‘blueblood,’ so she is extremely particular about the sort of boarding house she will run. Her first lodgers are each a little eccentric in their ways, but all starts well enough. Then she takes on Barnwell ‘Barney’ Augustus Quiffen. From the start, he is an annoying resident. He has a habit of complaining about everything, and demanding all sorts of extra service (and complaining again about the quality of that service). He soon succeeds in upsetting everyone, including Kelling. Then one day, he suddenly dies in what looks like a tragic fall under a subway car. The next morning, a strange woman shows up at the boarding house claiming that she witnessed what happened, and that it wasn’t an accident. And when the police begin to show up, too, asking questions, Kelling finds herself more involved in the investigation than she’d thought.

Boarding houses may not be as common as they were, but they’re still out there. And they do play interesting roles in crime fiction…

ps.  This whole topic got me thinking about B&B’s, which are (at least to me) a different kind of accommodation. A post on that is on tap for tomorrow…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Dickson Carr, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ruth Rendell

38 responses to “Residents Are More Than Welcome*

  1. A deadly boarding house that comes to mind appears in Alex Marwood’s ‘The Killer Next Door’. It takes place in a shared house with a dodgy landlord and rather eccentric neighbours – the kind that is very common in London. One of them is a killer with a unique way of getting rid of the bodies – or do I mean preserving them?

  2. One of my favorite Nero Wolfe novellas (no, the brownstone is NOT a boarding house) is “Counterfeit for Murder,” part of Homicide Trinity,where much of the action is set in a theatrical boarding house in New York City. The woman who owns the house, Hattie Annis, is one of my favorite female characters in any Wolfe book – she refers to Wolfe as “Falstaff,” for one thing.

    • …And that alone is reason to love the story, Les. Thanks for mentioning that. And you know, I can’t imagine Wolfe willingly taking in boarders. He has enough difficulty with guests when they’re really relevant to the cases he’s working.

  3. I can’t recall the title of a book I read a while back. It’s about a couple who take in a border and realize he’s not who he seems to be. Now it’s driving me crazy that I can’t remember the book. It’ll come to me. Maybe in time for tomorrow’s post. Looking forward to your B&B post.

  4. Margot: Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte, the creation of Arthur Upfield, lived and worked in rural Australia from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. It was a time when country hotels were infrequent and less often places a visitor would want to stay for they concentrated on the bar. Bony would stay on a station if the case was out in the country or with a family if he was in town. In the Widows of Brome he was undercover as the friend of the commanding police officer and stayed with the family. I think he would have stayed with families even if there was a fine hotel nearby. Residing with a family takes away some of the loneliness of work away from home.

    • Thanks, Bill, for reminding me of the way Bony takes lodging when he’s working away from home. You’re quite right that there weren’t the options there are now for those longer-term stays. And you’re right that Bony really doesn’t stay in hotels. In Death of Swagman, he even stays (briefly) in a local sheriff’s office – in the jail. He stays in people’s homes, too, and makes other arrangements as well. Interesting alternative to today’s work-away-from-home situation.

  5. Kathy D.

    The great, imperious genius, Nero Wolfe, called “Falstaff”? I love it. Must read that book. But Wolfe can’t stand women living under his roof. So how could he take in all boarders? He gets panic attacks if women even stay overnight in his brownstone.
    Another book with this theme is a more contemporary book by Sarah Waters called, “The Paying Guests.” They are boarders, a death occurs and an injustice. A friend says there is a lot of Dostoeyevskian guilt in this one.
    There sure is a lot of angst. It’s well-written and the feel to the post-WWI period in London is genuine to me.

    • I really want to read The Paying Guests, Kathy. I’d have mentioned it here, but I haven’t (yet) rad it. It certainly does fit in perfectly with this theme, though. Thanks for mentioning it.

  6. Col

    Struggling to think of any examples, though surely I must have encountered this theme in my reading….off to ponder..

  7. I really like Celia Fremlin’s books, domestic suspense which I think people are re-discovering now. Her first The Hours Before Dawn (1958) has a young mother driven mad by lack of sleep while her baby is small – and a lodger. IS the lodger sinister, or is she imagining things because of her sleep-deprivation? it’s a great book – and the baby/sleep thing is done very well.

    • Oh, that does sound like a good ‘un, Moira. And I think any new mother would be distracted by sleep deprivation and nerves. It’s part of the process, really. Using that as a tool, and at the same time exploring the whole lodger question is really clever.

  8. Letting out a room to a lodger is scary proposition because even if you do a background check, you never know for sure what you’re getting. Makes for a very creepy story idea.

    • It sure does, Pat. And you’re absolutely right that no matter what kind of background checking you do, you never really know what someone is like as a lodger until that person moves in. It’s a bit like hiring a nanny on that score.

  9. This is terrific stuff! Your posting and the visitors’ comments have added great titles to my must-read list. Over at my blog, Crimes in the Library, I’m always on the lookout for different perspectives/angles in crime fiction; your focus on hosts and tenants gives me something different to ponder.

  10. When I read your post The Paying Guests came to my mind as this was a way for the Wray mother and daughter to make some extra money but they got more than they bargained for! It is a terrific idea for crime fiction and I read recently that girls who went out to work in London in the 1940’s were put in boarding houses together often three to a room, one on the studio couch and two in double bed!

  11. Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger, sounds very interesting. Today’s couch surfing could make for an interesting setting for a crime.

  12. Pingback: He Was the Bed and Breakfast Man* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  13. I recently read one of Mel Sherratt’s novels, Watching Over You, where the landlady turned out to be not quite the lady you would hope her to be.

  14. Kathy D.

    Another wrinkle to the boarding house topic is written about in Long Way Home by Eva Dolan. It’s set in England among the Eastern European migrant community. The author exposes the horrible living and working conditions of these laborers. Many have to live in private homes, with many stuffed into each room whereby the owner takes much of their wages for room and board. These men work 16 hours a day, come home, sleep on a mattress and get up and go to work again.
    The writing is good; the potential for crime here is great, but Dolan’s revelations about the conditions so many migrants face is superb.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I’m very much looking forward to reading this one, and this is a really interesting perspective on the whole custom of boarding in people’s private homes.

      • When I was reading Long Way Home, I was aghast at the thought of people letting out sheds and garages to people for £100 a week. Who could possibly be so greedy and selfish? Would they like their son to be offered accommodation like that if he went abroad to work? It really angered me, to be honest.

        • It’s really horrible, isn’t it, Crimeworm? It’s one of those injustices that you don’t perhaps think about until you really are confronted with it, either in reading or real life. Then it sinks in just what it all really is.

        • Isn’t it shocking how mercenary some people can be? If someone was really stuck, a complete stranger, I’d probably say, Look if you can’t get anywhere at all, not even a homeless shelter, you can sleep in the garage as an emergency, but I could never take money off them!

        • That’s what I mean, Crimeworm! It’s appalling how some people will take such advantage of those who are least in a position to afford things. As you say, there are some things you do because it’s the right thing to do – not to get paid.

  15. I have read several of the Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn series, and especially enjoyed the first ones in the series. And I have Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down on my TBR pile. It sounds like a good one.

    • It is a good one, Tracy. I do do hope you’ll get to it at some point (I know all too well what the TBR challenge is like *sigh.* I like the Kelling/Bittersohn stories too. I sometimes wish series like that got a bit more attention. But no-one can pay attention to every novel and series out there…

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