In the 1930s, a single individual of modest means who moved to a city might well have chosen a boarding house as his or her domicile. Boarding houses were the up-market descendants of the common lodging house, originally a place of low fees, limited space and no-questions-asked about a tenant’s reputation. Often a last resort for people whose mobility was the consequence of poverty, there were some 3,000 common lodging houses in London by 1850. Over time, steadily increasing government regulations and the demands of a new white collar workforce saw the emergence of the privately-owned boarding house, which offered better accommodation and services such as meals, housekeeping and shared baths. In the early twentieth century, the residents of the boarding house were often retired army officers or single women, casualties of The Great War’s impact on the male population. The guests dined together and had their domestic matters attended to (laundry, cleaning) and shared the communal lounge to play cards or listen to the radio.
Given that it encompassed people from different walks of life under one roof, the boarding house presents an ideal setting for murder, suspicion and detection. However it was rarely deployed by classic crime novelists, who were more likely to favour a country house or an Oxford college (or a train) to create a closed community of suspects. Crime in Kensington (1933) by Christopher St John Sprigg is an exception. Set in a ‘westerly and unfashionable purlieu’, the genteel – but distinctly shady – residential Garden Hotel is home to a range of suspicious characters. The domestic schedule of the boarding house is integral to the story, and the murder and detection takes place exclusively on premises. Sprigg lived as a boarder with his father during his teens, and that experience lends verisimilitude to the Garden Hotel’s residents. Despite their quirks they reflect real boarder archetypes – the young working woman, the retired colonel, the student, the single professional man, the elderly spinster. Even the eccentric Miss Mumby, lover of séances and cats, shows the steady interest in spiritualism of the 1920s and 30s.
Another exception is Margery Allingham’s More Work for the Undertaker (1948) which employs the setting of an eccentric boarding house in post-war London to combine a traditional murder story with high comedy and acute social observation. Virtually all of Allingham’s post-war novels dealt with changes wrought by the war, physically and socially, and housing conditions often directly affect her plot. In Undertaker, the impoverished Palinodes are now boarding in the large Bayswater house they once owned, sharing it with boarders who had relocated when their previous house was bombed. Such houses were part of the solution to London’s solution to the housing crisis, either transformed voluntarily or through government requisitioning. When the first murder occurs, private sleuth Albert Campion moves in, and suspects, victims and detective all form part of one eccentric household.
Further reading: Living with Strangers: Bedsit and Boarding Houses in Modern English Life, Literature and Film, edited by Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezel. Bloomsbury Press.