Mask of Betrayal by Maureen O’Brien

Mask of Betrayal
Maureen O’Brien
Originally Published 1998
Inspector Bright #2
Preceded by Close-Up On Death
Followed by Dead Innocent

Close-Up On Death was a superb first novel so I was excited to track down a copy of Maureen O’Brien’s follow-up novel, Mask of Betrayal.

Like that earlier title, this novel also features Inspector John Bright though he is used slightly differently. In the previous book he was a presence in the background who occasionally asserts himself on the narrative until its final third, a consequence of that story being more focused on the impact a murder investigation has on a trio of characters. Here we follow his investigation more closely, making him a more active participant in this story.

The novel begins with the discovery of a decomposing body in a bathtub. The presence of the water in the tub has made it impossible to identify the victim – at a glance they can’t even tell if it is a man or a woman – but they are able to detect a trauma to the back of the head that suggests murder.

There is no sign of forced entry so the initial assumption is that the victim is the owner of the house, the actress Kate Creech. When Detective Inspector Bright follows up with the theater she was performing at in Coventry he discovers that she is still alive and multiple witnesses can confirm that she could not have returned to London in that period to commit a murder herself. So, who was the victim, why did they die and how did they gain access to the house?

Creech is wary of Bright, particularly after her first answers lead to several of her friends being harrassed and aggressively questioned. She becomes highly guarded, avoiding answering questions or sharing information with the police investigation. While she claims that she has no idea who the victim might be, she does have some suspicions which she tries to follow up on while dodging both Bright and the journalists who crowd around her home.

Meanwhile Bright is hot on her trail…

The opening of the book is, admittedly, the sort of thing you don’t want to read over breakfast though for the most part the grotesque images lie in the reader’s imagination rather than anything explicitly described on the page. O’Brien doesn’t need to describe the details – the reactions of the police to what they see are more than enough to let us imagine the disturbing sight and smells that await the police and that haunt Kate throughout the novel. She becomes intensely uncomfortable in her home, which she had been so proud of, to the point where she feels that no amount of cleaning would ever be enough to make it somewhere she could be happy again.

The questions about the corpse’s identity are interesting and while we quickly learn that there were several keys to the house in people’s possession, O’Brien is able to sustain the mystery of the body’s identity quite some way into the novel. There are two people in particular that Kate comes to suspect might be the body and so much of her investigation focuses on trying to track these people down and to understand what may have happened there.

Unlike the first novel which was told in the first person, here O’Brien shifts to a third person storytelling style which allows her to keep information back from the reader. In particular, we know that there are reasons Kate feels guilty about her past interactions with one of the possible victims but we do not know exactly what her reasons are at first. This adds additional layers of mystery to the story and helps to ensure that the reader feels they are always uncovering something new.

Meanwhile Bright’s investigation has a more traditional, procedural feel. One difference between this book and its predecessor is that we get the sense of a team around him with one character, a young and bright trainee named Edgeley, standing out and making some important contributions to the case. Here he directs his colleague’s actions, responds to the occasional bit of ribbing he gets from the other officers about his issues with actresses (his response to one instance of this early in the book is wonderfully sharp), and generally makes a nuissance of himself.

I love Bright as a character. At several points he reflects on how he is an investigator who is tired of investigating and yet he is clearly very effective at both getting under suspects’ skins and turning up leads. His general approach is to shake people up and see how they respond, both to get a sense of their characters but also to unsettle them so that they make mistakes or give information away they would otherwise want to keep guarded.

He remains capable of behaving quite callously towards the people he deals with. To give an example, early in this novel his aggressive questioning of a character and exposure of their secrets is directly responsible for the breakup of a relationship. Yet at other points, once he has got those results, he can be quite tender and thoughtful. The contrasts between Bright on the case and away from it are initially surprising but I think they make sense and perhaps help explain his lack of passion for a job he is very good at.

O’Brien enjoys playing off the persona he projects professionally and the person he actually is. One of my favorite moments in the story is when he responds quite dismissively to the idea of studying classics at university but then goes on to discuss Clytemnestra. He is a great creation who is capable of being quite surprising.

While I think this story is perhaps not so tight thematically as the first novel, it is a richer and more complex case. Bright and Creech’s investigations both have some interesting twists along the way and I enjoyed those moments when they would intersect. It isn’t the sort of case where I think the reader can prove anything before the detective but I thought that the developments and reveal of the killer made sense and felt quite credible.

Overall I loved this second installment in the series and would happily recommend it for the procedural fans, though with the note that you are best off reading these books in order. There are a few references made to the ending of the previous story that while they do not spell out what happens, would probably push you enough in that direction to impact your enjoyment of it.

Perhaps the biggest mystery about these first two books has been trying to figure out why they are out of print. Both are excellent, well-plotted procedural mysteries with interesting and complex characterizations. I would certainly be willing to stump up for new paperbacks with matching spines should they ever be reprinted!

Close-Up On Death by Maureen O’Brien

Close-Up On Death
Maureen O’Brien
Originally Published 1989
Inspector Bright #1
Followed by Mask of Betrayal

Close-Up On Death begins with stage actress Millie Hale arriving at a house she has arranged to view with her best friend, the popular and talented TV actress Liza Drew, only to find her lying dead on the floor, her mouth eaten away with acid (this sounds grizzly but the descriptions of said damage are thankfully minimal).

The initial appearance of the body suggests suicide although the circumstances are confusing but when an autopsy reveals that the damage was administered after death it becomes clear that Liza Drew was murdered. The problem is understanding who might have had a reason to kill her, particularly when everyone keeps asserting that she was loved by everyone who knew her and worked with her.

The investigation soon focuses on three individuals, all of whom were closely linked with Liza. Her best friend, her boyfriend and her mother. Each of the three had the opportunity to kill Liza but the stumbling block is understanding exactly why.

Maureen O’Brien decides to present her story from the perspective of that best friend, Millie. This is an interesting choice, in part because it puts a little more distance between the reader and the investigation, but also because it allows us entry into her mind, understanding how the case affects her and also giving us additional insight into her personality and allowing the author to focus on how a murder affects the lives of the people around the victim.

I think each of the main characters in the book are interesting and complex, each changing as a result of the murder investigation, but Millie has the most complicated journey, in part because the death of Liza has a material effect on her career. Pushed into the spotlight when the media hounds her, she finds herself responding unexpectedly to that pressure and this results in some opportunities opening up for her.

One of the most appealing aspects of the novel is the way O’Brien fills her story with details about what it is like to work as an actor. Clearly drawing on some of her own experiences, she not only captures the factual details but what it feels like to live that life. An example that is likely to stick with me is Millie’s comparison of the way backstage people treat you when working on the stage as opposed to the way a star might be handled on television. It makes for fascinating reading that feels grounded in real, personal observation.

I think it is also important to say that those theatrical themes and details are not treated as dressing but are actually as important to this story as catching a killer. O’Brien ruminates on the nature of success as an actor, the idea of the public and the private persona and the casting process and while those moments sometimes impact on the mystery narrative, they are also interesting explorations of theme in their own right.

The sleuth, Inspector John Bright, is an interesting creation, in part because O’Brien chooses to present him in a highly antagonistic manner. He agitates, irritates and manipulates the three suspects, trying to break apart their support networks to try and make them more vulnerable to his influence. For much of the book he is far from likeable, particularly given we see him through Millie’s eyes and she tends to dehumanize him, referring to him as “knife blade” for most of the novel.

What makes him so compelling is that his method is shown to work. His actions destabilize the relationships between the group, twisting and turning them against each other as he acts the provocateur. It is fascinating to see how he achieves this, to see the effects it has on their lives and how unrepentant he is about the damage he does. He has a job to do and he will cheerily do it.

The choice to keep him in the background, albeit as a lurking and threatening presence, for much of the story is similarly pretty interesting. Some of the comments I have read about the book question why it is billed as the first Inspector Bright novel when he is not the protagonist but I think the point is that he is always affecting the characters, even when he is not present in a scene.

It ought to be said that the approach to solving this case is principally psychological. There are no problems of alibis to sort out – we learn very early on that all three suspects cannot prove their stories – and the means of death is similarly clear. The question becomes understanding which of these three people would have committed that crime and how they could have done so given everyone’s insistence that Liza Drew was sweet and had no enemies. Puzzle-focused readers may be frustrated with this approach but I found that to be a compelling problem to try and solve.

This brings me to the novel’s solution and here I must confess to having some mixed feelings. Let’s start with a positive – I think O’Brien’s exploration of the killer’s reasons and the choices they made makes a lot of sense both psychologically and practically. Those reasons are explained pretty clearly in the final chapters and I never had any difficulty accepting them.

On the flip side, I think while the story tries to maintain multiple suspects right to the end, I think the eventual solution comes to feel quite inevitable by the end because the other possibilities would not resolve some of the key themes of the novel. That, to me, dulls the surprise in the reveal.

How you view that ending will ultimately depend on whether your interest is purely in the puzzle or if you prefer a more thematic approach to your crime fiction. If you fall into the former group then it is likely you will be frustrated by the choices, particularly in the manner in which O’Brien reveals what had happened. She does this through a device that I think is a little clumsy, providing some finality and a sense of resolution that is not directly and deliberately prompted by the mechanism of the investigation.

When viewed the other way, looking at it in the context of the themes developed throughout the novel, I think it becomes a much more powerful ending. I personally fall into this second camp and with the exception of not liking the mechanism by which all is revealed, I felt satisfied by a conclusion that made sense and helped me understand exactly why that crime took place.

Overall I had a great time with this first Inspector Bright novel and I am certainly eager to read more of the series. I have already set to work tracking down a copy of Mask of Betrayal so expect thoughts on that at some point in the next month or two.