Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Marie Belloc Lowndes


Mrs Belloc Lowndes (1868 – 1947) was a prolific novelist who came from a famous and socially well-connected family – her brother was Hilaire Belloc and Joseph Priestley was an ancestor. She is remembered today, however, for just one book. The Lodger (1913) is a fictionalised account of the Jack the Ripper murders, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, and then on no fewer than three further occasions.

I thought it would be interesting to pick up a copy of a book I saw in a catalogue from Jamie Sturgeon, compiled by her daughter Susan (and including a selection of her letters from 1911 to the year of her death. Very few crime writes have had collections of their letters published. The only name that springs to mind is Dorothy L. Sayers – no fewer than five collections of her letters have been published; she must have spent a fortune in stamps.

What is striking about the Belloc Lowndes letters is how little reference is made to crime writing.and crime writers. Christie and Sayers don’t get a mention. She wasn’t a member of the Detection Club, and she seems to have spent more time mixing with politicians and ‘the great and the good’. But is clear from the letters I’ve read so far that she was a fascinating and sociable woman with an inquiring mind.

Lowndes, by the way, created a detective called Hercules Popeau. Some people say that he was the inspiration for Hercule Poirot, and they certainly have some things in common, not least their vanity. But just to illustrate how unreliable some information is, I’ve seen at least one suggestion in print that Popeau was conceived as a parody of Poirot. But this suggestion seems to do a disservice to the originality of Lowndes’ creation..

10 comments:

Ed Gorman said...

The Lodger still works for me. The atmospherics are as compelling as the characters, this impoverished world of eternal and foggy night while an unknown killer stalks the London streets. I haven't read anything else by her but your mention of her letters containing few references to mystery writing doesn't surprise me. For all the chiller-diller stuff--as Ruth Rendell would call it--the book escapes the familiar by giving us a rich look at the lives of the husband and wife and their sad lives in poverty. This, to me, drives the book as much as The Lodger himself.

vegetableduck said...

Martin, spot-on as usual. She's a oddly neglected writer within the genre. Could this be because she received comparatively little attention in Haycraft and Symons?

Martin Edwards said...

Very interesting point, Ed, and I think it's true that Edwardian crime novels differed significantly from those after the First World War, with an almost 'modern' look at character and/or society. This is even true of The Four Just Men, which has much to say about immigration.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, I think it is true that writers (more or less) overlooked by Haycraft and Symons have sometimes suffered reputationally because of it. Henry Wade is one of the examples that spring to mind.

vegetableduck said...

Martin, among her earlier crime novels, The End of Her Honeymoon, as I was telling people on GAD, makes use of the Paris Exposition legend, and arguably her best book, The Chink in the Armour, is based on a true life French murder. Hemingway admired The Lodger and The The Chink in the Armour greatly (which perhaps makes up for the disappointingly slighting references in Bloody Murder!). Ed Gorman is an admirer too, I see. She produced crime novels throughout the twenties and thirties, including one dealing with the Lizzie Borden case and was respected in her day, but seems oddly forgotten now, hanging on the strngth of The Lodger's Jack-the-Ripper connection (yet another film version was recently made).

Like other writers, she felt, I believe, that crime writing was to some extent "slumming"--though she felt her crime novels were superior to detective stories focusing on a clue puzzle. Like crime novelists today, she was interested in the personality behind crimes, linking her more with Ruth Rendell, as mentioned above, than conventional Golden age detective novelists.

I think she's a more interesting writer than, say, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and one might have thought with all the emphasis on women writers today, that she might be getting more attention, but it hasn't happened yet. I do talk about her a bit in the general introduction.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for this, Curt. Are the Popeau stories any good?

vegetableduck said...

No idea on that Martin! She published a book in 1943, The Labors of Hercules--I assume this is a Popeau short story collection? This precedes the same titled Christie book by three years. If you find it, let me know!'

Philip said...

That is a good point about Haycraft and Symons, and it's a point that reminds one of the value of having Barzun and Hertig Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime to hand. With over 5000 entries, they didn't miss much in their 60 plus years of reading and exchanging notes. Some critics have, I think oddly, homed in on the idiosyncrasy of some of their comments, but if one looks at how the work came to be, criticizing it for being idiosyncratic is like criticizing a duck for quacking. It's an invaluable, possibly unmatched, source for forgotten names.

Martin Edwards said...

Valuable points, Curt. I guess you are right about 'slumming it'. I'll look out for the books you mention.

vegetableduck said...

Philip, I've noticed that on some points Symons seems to follow the Haycraft lead and together they clearly have been really influential. I wonder if, say, Anthony Berkeley's Poisoned Chocolates Case would be quite so highly regarded without the strong push these two gave. Personally, I prefer several other Berkeley's including Trial and Error, Jumping Jenny and Not to be Taken. I've always felt the latter so undervalued. But of course the multiple solutions device appeals to people.

I think Haycraft and Symons, along with Boucher, tended to slight some women writers with the HIBK tag. Lowndes was not an HIBK writer. She was writing what they would have called "psychological suspense" in the 1950s.