Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Death Wears a Mask

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are getting ready for Halloween. So for October we have chosen "Crime in Costume" as our month-long topic. All mysteries that feature costume/disguise/appearance misdirection EXCEPT theatrical mysteries (we're saving that for another time) are fair game. If you'd like to join us for discussion of the use of costumes, masks, masquerades, costume parties and the like in the mystery genre--particularly Golden Age dangerous dress-up, but all are welcome--then please stop in every Tuesday as we gather at Kate's place over at crossexamingcrime. Pull up a chair and have a scone or two...

This week I am taking a peek at the book featured in our October TNB logo: Death Wears a Mask (1935) by Therese Benson. When I went hunting for a suitable Golden Age cover to modify in the name of TNB fun, I found the delightful cover to the left. I was so intrigued by it that I decided that, if I could find a reasonably priced copy, then I must have it. I did--unfortunately sans dust jacket (may have to remedy that at some point through Facsimile Dust Jackets, LLC where I found the cover). The question--was it worth it? And how do costumes figure in?

As the title might indicate, the occasion of the murder in this mystery is a costume party. It is scheduled to take place in the penthouse apartment in the building where the newly minted Commissioner of Police, Samuel Mellon, makes his home. Mellon has just taken the job with aims to clean up New York--get rid of the racketeering, dope peddling, and graft. No more corruption on his watch. No more covering up crime. He has no idea what's in store for him in the first week on the job.

His old flame, Consuela Thorne--a mature actress, shows up at his door fully disguised on her way to the costume party. Consuela has always had a way of leaving broken hearts in her wake and hurting even her best friends when she didn't mean to. Mellon's niece Louise is also at his apartment, also dressed for the party. Consuela tries to make nice with her former beau and Louise--even though she plans on arriving at the party dressed in complementary costumes with Louise's husband. Consuela demands cocktails, which after a protest Sam goes into the kitchen to make, but when he returns to his front room both ladies are gone. He prepares to go out and makes a startling discovery...Consuela is dead in the vestibule leading to his apartment, stabbed at the base of her head with a dagger. A dagger that he gave her as a present several years ago. He can just see the headlines screaming: MURDER AT THE POLICE COMMISSIONER'S. But he's determined to do his duty...and then he sees the white satin mask  lying near the body. It is exactly like the one his niece was wearing.

So much for doing one's duty. He knows Louise can't have done it, but he must protect her at all costs. He decides to deposit the body in the vestibule of a highly respectable older lady one floor below him--someone sure to report the body and who couldn't possibly be considered a suspect even by the most dense policeman. He then takes off to find his niece and find out what happened while he was mixing drinks. Very little, as it happens--except Louise decided she wasn't up to the party and went home with a headache. And, by the way, she still has her own mask. So whose mask is it?

When Sam gets back to his building, he winds up at the penthouse in search of Ed (Louise's husband). He finds Ed determined to hold up the costume contest until his partner Connie arrives--just as the party go-ers have about given up on her, the elevator arrives one more time and someone shouts, "Connie's here!" And she is...apparently seated against the wall of the elevator. Sam is even convinced for a moment that he was wrong about her death--but Ed soon makes the second discovery of Consuela's death.

From there on out, Sam is playing a dangerous game. Doing his best to give Inspector Dolan of the Homicide Squad every bit of assistance he can without revealing that the murder actually happened in his own vestibule. A lot depends on Connie costume, a missing piece of jewelry, and who owns the white mask. There is also another piece of masquerading going on--Sam's houseman, a Chinese student by the name of Sing, isn't everything he appears to be. And his disguise will help lead Sam and Inspector Dolan to criminal. 

The costumes in this story provide a fair amount of camouflage and aid to the plot. Twice, Consuela's outfit keeps her death from being immediately recognized. Then, a part of her costume provides her killer with the method dispatch her. And, as mentioned, the white mask is a clue that keeps cropping up to puzzle Sam. I was a bit disappointed that the costume party itself didn't play a bigger part in the story and I would say that was one of my biggest quibbles. The costume party seemed to exist purely to provide the plot points above--but it wasn't crucial to the story in any other way. I'm not even entirely certain who was hosting the party or why. The other quibble, of course, is that our newly-minted Commissioner is going out of his way to muddy the waters of justice. Fortunately, justice is served in the end anyway.

Overall, a decent vintage mystery. There are plenty of clues and false leads and opportunity for the reader to puzzle it out on their own. Sam is a likeable character--even if he is a bit exasperating in his efforts to sweep certain things under the rug. Inspector Dolan makes a nice counterpart for him. I would be interested to see if they show up in any other stories by Benson.  ★★

This counts for the "Mask" category on the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

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