Marie Belloc Lowndes subtitled her first attempt at suspense fiction, When No Man Pursueth, “An Everyday Story.” Its setting is not the gothic castle, the lonely moor, or the Chinese opium den, so beloved of her generation, but a tiny, common English village filled with pleasant, ordinary English people living pleasant, ordinary lives—except for the fact that one man is slowly murdering his wife in quite a vile manner. The protagonist is a country doctor who, to his own amazement, begins to realize the truth. He has no direct proof, and another doctor does not agree with his suspicions, but slowly and reluctantly he is drawn into action. The focus of the novel is on neither the victim nor the murderer but on the workings of the young doctor’s mind. This careful delineation of the psychology of an ordinary person confronted by extraordinary circumstances was to become the linchpin of all Lowndes’s later work. What interested Lowndes was not the “who” but the “why.” In fact, her trademark was the revelation of the criminal’s identity at the beginning of the novel rather than at the end. Bereft of the value of the dramatic denouement, Lowndes experimented with different narrators and narrative techniques. In The Chink in the Armour (1912), which somewhat resembles the much later Before the Fact (1932) by Francis Iles, the story is told from the point of view of the intended victim.
The Story of Ivy and Letty Lynton
Victims were not, however, psychologically interesting to Lowndes. Her emphasis on motivation enabled her to break away from many of the stereotypes of her time. Although her writing does have its share of pathetic heroines, more common are the strong, amoral women whose straying from the path of accepted behavior is painstakingly depicted. Lowndes was particularly intrigued by the psychology of the female poisoner. Two of her most popular works, The Story of Ivy (1927) and Letty Lynton (1931), analyze two such women who ruthlessly try to rid themselves of all obstacles that block their path to monetary gain or sexual satisfaction. Interest in these novels is maintained in the revelation of the protagonist’s true identity as layer after layer of psychological camouflage is painfully stripped away. Both works contain courtroom scenes, and Lowndes’s skill at dialogue is evident in her adroit maneuvering of the verbal give-and-take of a trial. In 1939, Lowndes united this expertise to her concentration on psychological motivation in her acclaimed tour de force, Lizzie Borden.
Lowndes had long used actual criminal cases as background for her suspense novels, and she is principally remembered for these fictional reconstructions. The Borden case fascinated her—the case was one of the most controversial in United States criminal history, and the notorious Borden seemed to be the real-life counterpart of Lowndes’s own fictional murderesses. In 1893, the New York jury, although apparently presented with incontrovertible evidence of guilt, voted to acquit Borden. In Lowndes’s reconstruction of the case, Borden’s guilt or innocence is never an issue. She wholeheartedly accepts Edmund Pearson’s 1924 analysis of the trial that ridiculed the acquittal. For Lowndes, the interesting question is the motive underlying the guilt, which she defines as destructive love. Controlled by a tyrannical father and dominated by passions that she could not control, the quiet, repressed Borden visualized murder as a logical step in her quest for sexual liberation. Although no shred of evidence has ever arisen to substantiate Lowndes’s claim, her psychological insights and masterful setting of the scene lend a credibility that is further reinforced by its insertion between the factual prologue and epilogue. Unfortunately, the technical skill of the novel has at times been obscured by the prevailing theories about the Borden case. In 1971, both Pearson’s and Lowndes’s work were caustically attacked by the journalist Edmund Radin, who, decrying the bias of Pearson’s assertions, named the Borden servant, Bridget, as the culprit. Since the publication of Radin’s own book, Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story (1971), opinion generally has been divided between the Lowndes-Pearson and Radin camps. Another theory, rapidly gaining a following, deals with reputed epilepsy and concomitant temporary insanity in the Borden family.
The Lowndes work that is considered a classic of its kind concerns another famous criminal, Jack the Ripper. The Lodger is a complex weaving of Lowndes’s preoccupation with criminal history, feminine psychology, and obsessive motivation. It also represents a milestone as the first fictional treatment of a subject that has continued to fascinate connoisseurs of crime; many consider it to be not only the first but also the best fictional reworking of the Jack the Ripper story.
In 1913, Lowndes was still wary of using actual names. Her murderer is called “The Avenger,” and...
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