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!