Now here's a mystery for you with an odd-sort of hero - a tramp. The "passing tramp" is frequently invoked in mysteries as the usually mythical character who "must" have been responsible for the murder - certainly it couldn't be a family member, or someone being blackmailed, or a presumptive hear tired of waiting around for an inheritance. As it happens, there is at least one passing tramp who served as the protagonist in a series of mysteries by the author, J. Jefferson Farjeon. The character's name is "Ben the Tramp," and he is featured in a fine Golden Age mystery called The House Opposite, first published in 1931. The House Opposite is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
Ben the Tramp is a totally down-and-out character, likely to get drawn into mysteries simply because he happens to wander into them – as he might, for example, wander into a deserted and falling-down house at number 29 Jowle Street in London…and become curious about some rather strange and seemingly inexplicable goings-on in the house directly across the street, at number 26. Ben doesn’t want to get involved, doesn’t like getting involved, has little reason to get involved – and gets involved.
When he first breaks into 29 Jowle Street, Ben is merely looking for a place to squat for a while. But he finds a great deal more than he bargained for – there are strange people showing up at the front door, or, worse, inside the house, all of whom are trying to persuade Ben (by subtle or not-so-subtle means) to leave at once, if he knows what’s good for him. This is not a good tactic to pursue with Ben. And when another stranger who shows up uninvited – a young woman – gives Ben a whole pound note (Ben had been down to his last few pence) to act as her “caretaker” for the house, Ben feels an obligation to stay and help her – though he doesn’t know who she is. What he does know, from looking out of the window at number 29, is that there are strange doings across the way at number 26 Jowle Street. And he sees a variety of people – almost all of whom will turn out to be most unsavory and several of whom don’t seem to have a very high regard for human life. Including his.
This is a thriller, rather than a detective story. It reads like the sort of thing Edgar Wallace was particularly adept at whipping up – by which I mean that the reader really has to be willing to suspend a fair amount of disbelief and (unless I’ve missed a number of key points) must gloss over some unexplained details as we rush to an exciting conclusion. The House Opposite is a very effective little page-turner of a book, and Ben is probably the most endearing passing tramp that the reader could ever hope to meet.