Not so much a mystery, more of a thriller crossed with a howdunnit, all told in the expected rather florid late-Victorian prose that you either like or you don’t. Reviewers of the day sometimes described Alice Muriel Williamson — although her books were often published as collaborations with her husband Charles, in reality they were her solo work — as the new Wilkie Collins, especially after the publication of her early novel A Woman in Grey (1898), and I think the comparison is for once perfectly apt. To judge by The House by the Lock, my first experience of Williamson’s work (but I hope not my last), while Collins was undoubtedly the more captivating writer, his disciple was very able as well, and the two shared many sensibilities. If you love Collins (as I do), then you’ll probably like Williamson really quite a lot.
In London, famous global adventurer Noel Stanton falls in love with the high-born Karine Cunningham the moment he sets eyes on her. On the other hand, he’s not so sure about her companion du jour, Carson Wildred, whom Noel’s pretty certain he recalls having met somewhere before, years ago — recalls not in a good way. When the friend who introduced him to Karine, Harvey Farnham, mysteriously disappears on Christmas Day and, soon after, a decapitated body is found, burned beyond recognition and with its fingers amputated, in the river near the title’s House by the Lock, Noel suspects the worst — especially when he spies the unusual ring that Farnham wore now adorning the finger of Karine. Yes, the evil Wildred has given it to her as an engagement ring.
How could Karine be so foolish? Why is she so insistent that her marriage to obvious stinker Wildred must go through?
Noel tries to alert the cops, Karine’s guardians, anyone to the notion that Farnham’s been murdered and Wildred is the killer, but all to no avail. There’s documentary evidence that Farnham left unexpectedly just before Christmas to return to his home in the States, and Noel’s theories are dashed when reports from there confirm that Farnham has indeed arrived. Yet still our hero’s unconvinced and, even though he knows his quest is likely quixotic, off he sets across the Atlantic to try to confirm — or otherwise — that his old friend really is still alive . . .
There’s a tremendous amount to enjoy in this novel (although, to repeat, if you don’t like florid Victorian prose you probably won’t have as much fun with The House by the Lock as I did). There are various set pieces, some intended to be creepy and some, including the one I liked the best (where Noel must try to escape from a burning building), intended to build up suspense. In the culminating chapters the suspense reaches new heights.
I enjoyed, too, the feeling that Williamson has her tongue slightly in her cheek when Noel — who narrates in the first person — describes his purity of emotion toward the uproariously red-haired, sweet-voiced, shapely Karine. Yep, sure: no baser instincts there, honest.
Quite a few of Williamson’s novels were filmed — you can find more details on IMDB — but as far as I can work out this wasn’t one of them. It’s high time someone picked up the gauntlet. A BBC costume mini-series, perhaps?
I could go for that.