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The moment Evelyn Manville enlists in the British Army, his thoughts turn to Dorothy Grieve. He’s loved her since they were children, and now he can finally ask her to be his wife. But when she refuses, the heartbroken Evelyn flees to the fringes of the British empire, and doesn’t return to London for sixteen years. He’s been home just three hours before he runs into his former love, and his old feelings come flooding back. This time, however, she has a proposal for him.
A newly minted widow, Dorothy has been left alone to care for Crispin, a son she hardly knows. Desperate for help, she invites Evelyn to come to the country and act as the young boy’s tutor. But Evelyn will soon find that Crispin believes his father was murdered—and discovering the truth could break Evelyn’s heart all over again.
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.
Part mystery, part Greek tragedy, Death Mask will come as something of a surprise to readers familiar only with Ellis Peters’s “Brother Cadfael” mystery series. For one thing, Death Mask is a stand-alone mystery; for another, it’s very decidedly contemporary rather than historical. (Contemporary to Peters, that is. At a guess, the book takes place in the 1950s, and was originally published in 1959.) But it’s written with Peters’ customary skill and sensitivity to the shadings of human emotion and experience, and her distinctive voice is easily identifiable, though filtered (as it should be) through the first-person narrative.
Unlawful death, themes of justice and vengeance, and the lust for gold and glory contrast ominously with the surface normality of a English country house and the prickly relationships between an adolescent boy, his mother, and his tutor. The tension grows steadily as Evelyn, the narrator, begins to perceive the whole of what has happened, and the path which Crispin is pursuing with singleminded determination. Peters captures that sense of looming and inevitable disaster that pervades Greek tragedy, letting it swell until it bursts forth in a surprising, violent, and dramatically drawn-out climax.
Evelyn’s growing affection for Crispin despite the latter’s impersonal antagonism, and Crispin’s reluctant respect for Evelyn in return, are what really make the story work for me. Without that, and without Evelyn’s insight into Crispin, interpreting him for the reader, the plot could feel overdone. But Peters paints both man and boy — the two main characters, and never mind the hint of romance between Evelyn and Crispin’s mother, Dorothy — with such subtlety and understanding that they become real to me. That reality spills over onto the secondary characters and renders the less plausible parts of the plot completely believable.
I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will say that in a sense, the Greek tragedy continues to the end: hubris brings down a prideful character. Who, and how, I leave you to find out. But I’ll also remind you that this is an Ellis Peters mystery, not one of Sophocles’ plays. Which means you have a reasonable hope for a satisfying conclusion.
Full disclosure here: I’ve actually read Death Mask twice before… which tells you something about how much I enjoy it! I hope you will enjoy it, too.
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Cruisin' Thru the Cozies 2016