Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Jewellery (Back cover)
This book was an impulsive Ebay buy, irresistible at such a reasonable price and equally tantalising due to the fact I had not heard of this author before. Augustus Muir was one of the pen names for Charles Augustus Carlow Muir (1892-1989), although he also wrote under the name Austin Moore. He was a Canadian-Scottish author who wrote in a number of genres including travel writing, biography, history (especially Scottish), as well as mystery fiction. He even wrote a book on wine. He also seems to have written a number of short stories, which were printed in publications such as 20-Story Magazine, The Passing Show, Detective Fiction Weekly and The Crusoe Mag. The House of Lies (1932) is categorised on its’ front cover as a crime thriller and it certainly lives up this title, packing in a lot of mystery, suspense and surprises into 128 pages.
The House of Lies begins with William Philemon (don’t get too attached to him), meeting a girl in Hyde Park, whom he is romantically interested in called Betty Kildare and her guardian Sir John Tonbridge. The latter though does not approve of Philemon. Tonbridge is the chairman of the National Commercial Bank of Great Britain and lives at Bank House. On their return home Sir John and Betty meet Jim Harrison, a young medical practitioner, who has been friends with them for a while, as Tonbridge was friends with Harrison’s father. Harrison has recently been working with DI Crawford at Scotland Yard, being one of their pathologists’ assistants. It seems there is a serial killer on the loose, who has targeted three rich men in the last 12 months. They believe this killer must be the same man responsible for pulling off a number of famous robberies years ago, a man called the Red Mask… Before each of these victims died they removed a large sum of money from their bank accounts, which is suggestive of blackmail and of a blackmailer who kills once he has got what he wants. One thing which all these victims have in common is that they are clients of Tonbridge’s bank. The police are initially hopeful that a new victim who has contacted the police will able to give them more information, when they mentioned that the blackmailer seemed to know a lot about his financial affairs. Yet it is not to be, as the fourth victim, Philemon (I did say don’t get attached) dies before he has a chance to speak. The Red Mask has struck again…
This is a thriller which switches its narrative position a lot, meaning that the story also narrates events from the side of the confederates of the Red Mask, such as Bernard Gaskell (who is deeply interested in Betty), Charles Lingard and his wife Cecile. Red Mask’s confederates are always chosen due to their own criminal pasts, pasts that have never been revealed to the police as the Red Mask has always covered it up for them. However, these are not happy confederates and it seems that throughout the story they are keen to discover who the Red Mask really is and use this is as leverage to buy their own freedom. But will they succeed or will Red Mask be as ever one step ahead of them?
Although it seems like a lot of information is given early on, in fact Muir is adept at maintaining suspense and spreading suspicion and guilt liberally over many of the characters, making it hard to gauge at times who are the good guys and who are the bad ones. Tonbridge is definitely one of these characters, whose behaviour is deeply suspicious, though it seems he may well be the Red Mask’s next target. As the tale progresses it seems like the truth concerning the present situation is rooted in the past, but this new information creates more questions than answers. In true thriller style you have a faithful hero whose loyalty conflicts with his work with the police and you have the heroine who is a bit of wally but not unbearably so.
This is a fast paced and action filled story, with nearly every chapter ending dramatically, which culminates in a final chase between the police and the criminals, full of danger and drama and a very well executed surprise at the end. The brilliance of this surprise is no accident in my opinion as I think Muir does a first rate job at controlling our attentions and influencing our ideas about the central mystery. Muir uses the trope of the faceless and nameless master criminal well in this story and I liked how the information concerning the central crime is revealed to us by different characters, innocent and guilty, rather than just focusing on the action of Jim Harrison, although he did do some good amateur sleuthing. Muir’s characterisation skills although sparse and often atmospherically focused (in keeping with the thriller nature of the story), are actually quite good and one of his descriptions particularly stood out for me, which was about Tonbridge’s secretary who wore ‘a black lounge suit [and] accentuated the pallor of Rhodes’s sallow skin, and his mouth had the saturnine twist of one who finds life savourless.’ All in all this was a fun quick read, full of surprises and I don’t think it would be grossly unjust to put Muir in the same realms of the much more famous thriller writer Edgar Wallace.