If you rent your home, rather than own it, then you have a landlady/landlord, or perhaps there’s a company that owns the property. Either way, there’s a certain relationship between property owners and tenants; in fact, there’s a whole branch of the law dedicated to landlord/tenant matters. When there’s a person to whom you pay your rent, and to whom you go if you have a property maintenance issue, there’s an even closer relationship, because you see that person on a regular basis. And, since so many people do rent, it’s a relationship we see a lot in real life. We see it, of course, in crime fiction, too – again, not surprising, since so many people rent.
One of the best-known of fictional landladies is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mrs. Hudson, who rents rooms to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. We don’t learn an awful lot about her in the course of the stories; but she is a regular presence. Here’s what Dr. Watson says about her in The Adventure of the Dying Detective:
‘Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience.’
Still, Mrs. Hudson and Holmes have a good relationship. She even helps him set a trap for a killer in The Adventure of the Empty House.
Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is told from the point of view of Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have retired from domestic service. In order to supplement their income, they’ve become landlord and landlady, and have opened their home to lodgers. Their plan isn’t very successful at first, mostly because Ellen Bunting is particular about the kinds of people to whom she is willing to rent. But their luck changes one day when an eccentric man calling himself Mr. Sleuth arrives. He is quiet, has the ‘right’ bearing, and pays well and in advance. So the Buntings willingly accept him as a tenant. At first, all goes smoothly enough. Besides, the Buntings are preoccupied with a series of murders that have been taking place in London. The police haven’t arrested anyone, and the papers are full of the lurid details. Then, Ellen Bunting begins to have some concerns about Mr. Sleuth. He’s been behaving oddly, and she slowly begins to wonder, to her horror, whether he might be the killer. If he is, then the Buntings themselves could be in danger. If he’s not, then she could be giving up an important source of income. It’s an interesting example of a landlord/landlady’s point of view.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her unpleasant tenant James Bentley. There’s evidence against him, too. In fact, he’s already been convicted, and is scheduled to be executed. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t convinced of Bentley’s guilt. So he asks Poirot to go to the village of Broadhinny to investigate. As it turns out, Mrs. McGinty was a little too curious for her own good about her clients’ secrets, and someone didn’t want her telling what she knew. Although it’s not the main focus of this novel, Christie does have a few things to say about the relationship between Bentley and his landlady. On the one hand, she could be irritating. On the other, he was concerned about her because he knew she kept money in her home, instead of safely at the bank. It’s an interesting insight into their interactions.
Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home offers a different perspective on landlords and landladies. In that novel, DI Dushan Zigac and DS Mel Ferreira investigate the murder of a man whose body is found in a burned-out shed on the property of Paul and Gemma Barlow. The Barlows claim that he was a squatter, and that they don’t know who he was; and in any case, they say he wasn’t there for very long. So Zigac and Ferreira try to trace the victim’s last days and weeks. He is soon identified as an Estonian immigrant named Jaan Stepulov, and the police start with that name. The trail leads to Fern House, a home owned by Joseph and Helen Adu. They do what they can to provide a decent home for their tenants, but they are overwhelmed by the work involved. Zigic and Ferreira then learn that Stepulov might have gotten involved in a fight with Andrus Tombak. If that’s true, then Tombak may know something about the murder. It turns out that Tombak, too, is a landlord, but of a very different kind. He has at least a dozen immigrants living in squalid conditions in his home, and has no compunctions about bribing whoever he has to in order to keep from losing that source of income. The Adus and Tombak don’t provide ‘the vital clue’ about the victim’s death. But they do show the kinds of tenant conditions that immigrant workers often have.
Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, which takes place in 1922, shows the way that rentals sometimes worked in those immediate post-war years. Frances Wray and her mother have fallen on hard times since the end of the war. For one thing, her father has died, leaving the family without his income. For another, her two brothers were lost in the war. With little other choice, the two women have decided to open their home to ‘paying guests’ – tenants. For them, it’s an admission of economic difficulty and, therefore, a source of shame. But they try to make the best of it. Len and Lilian Barber take an interest in the place and before long, are installed as the Wrays’ tenants. It’s very awkward at first, but everyone tries to adjust. It turns out, though, that this landlady/tenant arrangement is the start of a tragic chain of events.
And of course, no discussion of landlords and landladies in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Sue Grafton’s Henry Pitts, who is landlord for Grafton’s PI sleuth Kinsey Millhone. He’s not just the person to whom she pays her rent; he’s also a friend. He’s an interesting person in his own right, and Millhone finds him good company. She also sees him as a sort of father figure.
For a chilling look at a crime-fictional landlady, there’s Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. In that story, Billy Weaver has just arrived in Bath to start a new job. By chance he comes upon a B&B with rooms available; so on impulse, he checks in. What happens next is…well…you can read it here.
As you can see (and you probably knew it already), landlords and landladies come in all types. Some are to be avoided at all costs, and some are wonderful people. But all of them can add to a good story. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from George Thorogood’s version of One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer. It’s an interesting mix of the original John Lee Hooker version, plus another Hooker song called House Rent Boogie.