We all wear masks, if you think about it. A person may be honest and straightforward, for instance, in business, but does anyone really need to know about the knee-knocking fear that person feels every time a major presentation comes up? When people go on first dates, they want everything to go smoothly and to make a good first impression. So, they take pains with appearance, try to keep the conversation to things they know about, and so on.
Sometimes those masks are deliberately deceptive of course. We’ve all read stories, both real and fictional, of people who pretend to be something they most definitely aren’t. More often, though, the masks we wear are meant to preserve privacy or to hide our insecurities and weaknesses. Because that’s such a human thing to do, it’s no surprise that we see it in crime fiction, too.
In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Hercule Poirot is present at a cocktail party during which one of the guests, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. He didn’t have any enemies, and certainly no fortune to leave, so it’s hard to establish the motive at first. Not very long afterwards, there’s another, similar poisoning, this time at another house party. Many of the same people were at both events, so it’s hard to argue that the two cases are not connected. One of the ‘people of interest’ here is Oliver Manders, a young man who’s just getting started in his career. He has all of the insecurities that a lot of young people have as they move out into the world. So he wears a mask of jaded boredom and sarcasm. It certainly doesn’t endear him to others, but Poirot sees that he’s really just an unhappy young man who’s no more pleased with his annoying mask than anyone else is.
Fans of Reginald Hill’s series featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant (later Inspector) Peter Pascoe will know that Sergeant Edgar Wield wears a sort of mask, at least at first. Wield is a part of Dalziel’s team, and does his job well. But he’s gay at a time and in a place where it’s not wise to let that fact be widely known. Everything changes in Child’s Play, though. In that novel, the team is investigating the strange case of the Lomas family. Wealthy Geraldine Lomas left her considerable fortune to her long-lost son, provided he returned by 2015. When she died, a man claiming to be that son came to her funeral, so now it looks as though he is set to inherit the money. Then he’s killed, and his body found in a car at the police station. In one of the sub-plots of this novel, Wield comes out as gay. It’s awkward for him, but as it turns out, not nearly as difficult for his bosses as he thought it might be.
We see a similar kind of mask in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful (and married) accountant Daniel Guest has been leading a sort of double life. He’s also had several trysts with men, and in that sense, identifies as gay. But he doesn’t want to come out. That choice has gotten him into trouble, as he’s being blackmailed. Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the blackmailer is and get that person to stop. Quant thinks it would be better for his client to come out as gay, but Guest refuses to do that. So Quant starts asking questions. The trail leads him to New York City – and to an unexpected murder.
Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces readers to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King and her brother Bill, who’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office. It’s the 1950’s, when everyone is expected to get married, settle down and have a family. So when Bill meets former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele, it seems that ‘suburban dream’ is about to come true for him. Lora tries to be happy for her brother, but right from the start, she’s not too fond of Alice. Still, Bill is in love, and the two get married. For Bill’s sake, Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law. And on the surface, Alice is a happy suburban wife. She becomes the ‘star’ of their circle of friends, and takes great pains to ensure that every event she hosts comes off perfectly. Behind that mask, though, Lora senses something dark. As she starts to learn more about Alice’s life, she is both repelled by it and drawn to it. Then there’s a murder, and a good possibility that Alice may be mixed up in it. Now Lora worries for her brother’s safety. Alice isn’t what she seems, but what, exactly, is she?
And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we first meet her in Still Life, she’s just been made a member of the Sûreté du Québec, and is excited about this promotion. Even more, she’s been assigned to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who has a strong reputation. Nichol has had an unfortunate background with a dysfunctional family. That in itself puts her at a disadvantage. She also has the insecurities that any young person might when starting a career with a prestigious leader. She doesn’t want to appear weak, and wants desperately to belong. But instead of asking questions, listening to advice, and doing as she’s asked, Nichol hides her insecurity behind a mask of smugness and arrogance. Her decision not to be honest with herself and others leads to a tense story arc (which I won’t spoil by revealing).
Masks may not always be the wisest choice. But we all wear them. We all present ourselves (as best we can) in the way we want others to see us. So it’s no wonder that there are so many masks in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Player’s Baby Come Back.