MASKS AND MURDER

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A Golden Age for Masks?

Back in 2015 when I began planning my contemporary crime novel Night and Mr Knightley, I considered using a masked ball as the setting for a murder.  I was using Jane Austen’s Emma as the basis for the plot and so a regency ball seemed appropriate and the use of masks ideal for the schemes of a murderer. 

New novel: Night and Mr Knightley




But a masked ball?  Yes, it had been used extensively in Golden Age Detective fiction (GAD), but that in itself made it seem rather passé.  Would people now think that the wearing of masks could be at all believable?

The story itself was to take place in the autumn of 2016.

But then, at that precise moment, the world seemed to go a bit mad – in masks!  There were huge marches of protesters wearing stylised Guy Fawkes masks in the November of that year – the Million Mask March.

Guy Fawkes Mask




There were gangs of clowns wearing make-up like a mask attacking people (I kid you not) especially in my home city of Nottingham where my stories are set.  The combo of Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night had a lot to answer for!

Also there were protests in Europe about whether Muslim women should be allowed to cover their faces in public with only their eyes showing in case they were concealing explosive packages and couldn’t be identified. 

And on a more local level, I had planned on referring to one of our theatres, Nottingham Playhouse, as part of the story – they then staged Thomas Middleton’s ‘Revenger’s Tragedy’ in November 2016, which I soon discovered was a jacobean gore-fest featuring mass murder at a masked ball !  It couldn’t have been more appropriate so I decided to feature it as a major theme in my story.

But becoming a Carer for my dear Mum in the last three years has meant something of a delay in my speed of book production.  The publication of Night and Mr Knightley would have to be delayed to 2020.  Would the subject of the wearing of masks be considered passé by then?  Er, well…

There are far too many GAD stories featuring masks and masked balls for me to mention them all.  But here is a taste of a few of them that I either read for research or refer to directly in my novel, hopefully without any spoilers.

The Masks Themselves

Masks come in many colours and materials.  I began with reading Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask of 1928 which features a full-face mask of grey rubber.   A bank robber in John Dickson Carr’s Colonel March story Hot Money (made for TV in 1952) also wears a full-cover rubber face mask as a robbery and a murder are committed.  In White Face by Edgar Wallace (1931) the villain wears a white cloth cut with two eye holes. 

Then more colourfully there was Behind the Green Mask by Ralph Trevor (1940), Greenmask by J Jefferson Farjeon (1944),

and the classic short story The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe (1842).

Frequently, though, the masks were simple black eye masks such as that worn by E W Hornung’s Raffles (1901)

or The Count of Monte Christo by Dumas (1844)

or Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders (1928). 

(I originally had a black eye mask featured on the cover of my book but the designer turned it a striking pink – which I rather like!)

 Party!

Just this list shows that masks were useful for individuals committing crime, sometimes skulking on their own down dark streets, but often in plain sight in public because everyone was at a party and disguised by masks as well.

JJ Connington’s detective Sir Clinton Driffield is annoyed in Tragedy at Ravensthorpe (1927) that his friends have chosen fancy dress for their large country house party –  masks make it too easy for a criminal:

“ ‘I’m not altogether easy in my mind over this masked ball of Joan’s.  Speaking as a Chief Constable responsible for the good behaviour of the district, Cecil, it seems to me that you are running some risks over it.  A dance is all very well.  You know all your guests by headmark [sic] and no one can get in on false pretences.  But once you start masks, it’s a different state of affairs altogether.’ “

So true.

This was certainly the case in Agatha Christie’s The Affair at the Victory Ball (1923).

But  Dorothy L Sayers of course reverses this in her Murder Must Advertise (1933), since disguising himself as a harlequin with a mask enables the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey to deceive and mislead the criminals. 

There is also her short story The Queen’s Square (1932) featuring a fancy dress ball (Lord Peter is dressed as the Jack of Diamonds) but I couldn’t see any references to masks even though one would have expected them to feature.  Sayers also refers to the American pulp fiction Black Mask magazine “that monthly collection of mystery and sensational fiction”, featuring it as a clue (or an anti-clue?) in Unnatural Death (1927) which Inspector Parker refers to disparagingly as “light reading for the masses”.

When looking at the subject of masks online I came across a lot of items on what has been labelled ‘The Party of the Century’.  This was Truman Capote’s bash in New York in 1966, ostensibly in honour of the Washington Post’s publisher Katherine Graham, and Everyone who was Anyone was there.  It took the form of a black-and-white masked ball.

 I used this in my novel as Prisha Chatterjee’s inspiration for the masked ball that she is helping to arrange for the fictional Nottingham Knights Entertainment Company.  The dresses of 1966, for example Mia Farrow’s, look almost regency, though somewhat shorter!

Edgar Allan Poe’s party in The Masque of the Red Death, however, is predictably more scary and apparently now has something of a cult following in America at Halloween.  It concerns a wealthy Prince who invites all his friends to his castle to join him at a non-stop lock-down party so they can avoid a plague that is ravaging the land.  The plague is called the Red Death.  It is a masquerade with music, food and entertainment, whilst the poor are left outside the castle walls to suffer (sounding familiar?).  Then a mysterious and ominous figure all in red, including a red mask, appears at the party uninvited…  I’ll leave you to guess the rest.  Just like the classic image of the executioner in a black hood to hide his face, masks can be worn to protect the identity of those who are a form of Nemesis, who implement appropriate revenge for wrongdoers and enemies.

Conclusion

In GAD masks were frequently worn around the eyes, not the mouth.  But usually if someone was in a mask it meant they were about to rob you at the very least but quite possibly kill you.  Here and now in January 2021 someone with a mask around their mouth and nose is more frequently trying to save your life.

As part of this general trend, there have been many literary-themed fabric masks produced, several featuring Jane Austen or quotes from her work. The ‘social distancing’ of regency life has also meant lots of photoshop opportunities utilising her stories.

And representations of Jane herself have not escaped the mask message.

Statue of Jane Austen with mask

In 2016 masks were being worn by those protesting the curtailing of our freedom.  This can also be true now, but more often the opposite is the case – people  refusing to wear masks because they feel it curtails their freedom.  On the news it has just been reported that a third of police in the UK have had people without masks spitting at them or coughing on them, now a potentially murderous act.  There have been ‘COVID-deniers’ without masks invading hospitals and endangering the staff and patients’ lives.

So regardless of the time gap between now and the Golden Age of crime fiction, all this shows that masks are still a matter of life and death, although our perception of how they function has been turned upside down.

But I must leave you now.  A man in a black mask has just come to my door – delivering something nice from Amazon.

[For more on Night and Mr Knightley by Jeanette Sears, see the WELCOME page or go straight to Amazon Kindle]


The Incredible Crime

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A Review of The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh

‘The Incredible Crime’ by Lois Austen-Leigh

As if I didn’t already love Golden Age murder mysteries enough, this one came with the added incentive of an author related to Jane Austen (1). Who could resist?

The Incredible Crime came out in 1931 and was penned by JA’s great-great niece – or should I say ‘neice’ as JA herself always misspelled it – Lois Austen-Leigh (1883 -1968). Apparently she wrote her books on Jane Austen’s desk, later donated by her ‘neice‘ to the British Library. (Mm, pity I don’t have any nieces, they’re starting to sound extremely useful.)

I was also attracted by the academic environment of much of the story. The Cambridge University setting is beautifully realised, as indeed it should be by someone who in real life was the neice, sorry, niece of the Provost of King’s College, Augustus Austen-Leigh and his wife Florence Lefroy Austen-Leigh (2). In case all of these Austens weren’t enough, there are even a couple of cheeky references to JA herself and Northanger Abbey.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the heroine of the novel, Prudence Pinsent, is the spinster daughter of the Master of the fictional Prince’s College (I particularly enjoyed this as I made up my own Oxford College for my first murder mystery) (3). Prudence herself is well over 30 but doesn’t look it, and although a clergy daughter and generally dignified, will swear like a trooper when provoked.  Her main ambition in life at first seems to be gaining as many months as possible in the countryside for fox-hunting.

One definitely is fed the inside scoop over port in the ‘Senior Combination Room’ and the cosiness of afternoon tea and college gossip at a don’s fireside. Reminiscences of the eccentricities of past academics and students add authenticity and spice to the atmosphere. For example, join me in a Professor’s rooms:

“His man came in with a bright copper kettle which he put on the fire; it started to sing at once. He then drew the curtains and brought in an ample tea, putting a plate of hot cakes in the fender. Nothing more comfortable could be imagined.” (4)

‘The Nine Tailors’ by Dorothy L Sayers

The other very authentic aspect of the setting is the author’s descriptions of the Fenland country around Cambridge and Ely and stretching towards the east coast, which was very reminiscent of Dorothy Leigh Sayers’ 1934 mystery The Nine Tailors. Austen-Leigh writes:

“They turned into the flat fen country and drove at a reasonable pace. On a bridge over a broadish bit of water they pulled up for a moment. ‘This is very fascinating,’ said Prudence, ‘is it a ‘drain’, the Ouse, or the Cam, I wonder?’ ‘I think,’ said Thomas, ‘that this is what you might call a drain – it’s the New Bedford Cut. It was made I don’t know how long ago by some Duke of Bedford, and cuts off a long bend in the Ouse; we shall pass the depleted bit of river farther on.’ ‘Is this how you get from Cambridge by water to the sea?’ ‘No, you do that by going down the Cam into the Ouse by Ely, by Denver Sluice into the Wash.’ (5) (I chose that quote because I thought Sayers’ fans would enjoy talk of Dukes and Denver!)

The descriptions of the Suffolk coast are also splendid, as are the wonderful meals and rooms enjoyed by Prudence stopping off at Ipswich at the ‘Great White Horse’ Inn (1518 with a Georgian facade). It was also used by Dickens and by his creation Pickwick, and it made me want to go there immediately. How disappointing to look it up online and find that it closed as an inn in 2008, is now part-Starbucks and is to be made into a business centre by the local council. Apparently the 16th century builders failed to take into account the 21st century desire for en suite.

As with many of the books of this period, it can be hard to visualise the characters accurately as to their age – everyone is so tweedy and old fogeyish and smokes a pipe if male. And one doesn’t necessarily pick up on the hints about the women from their appearance and habits either. I was continually astounded that everyone was about 20 years younger that I had first assumed. The way an “independent” woman is described is very different to how we would describe a single woman today, much of which we might find laughable. This also applies to the attempt at ‘romance’ in the story – if you’re a single woman who values her independence, be prepared to choke at the ending! Again, I can’t help but compare this to Dorothy L Sayers’ far superior attempt at romance in a detective novel set in the academic world in the glorious Gaudy Night.

If I am taking my time getting round to the plot itself, perhaps it is because this was the least compelling part of the book for me. Suspected drug smuggling and chemical experiments at the university are the substance, but unfortunately much of the searching for smugglers in underground tunnels reminded me of Famous Five novels, no doubt unfairly as Austen-Leigh’s book preceded Enid Blyton’s by about ten years. (I think it was the unscrewing of a window seat to discover a tunnel that really did it, although no doubt such things existed aplenty in ancient coastal country houses!)

Crime Novel Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers

In view of the many reminders of Sayers’ work that this book sparked off in me, I thought I would consult the new collection of Sayers’ crime reviews from the early thirties (6) to see if she had anything definitive to say on her contemporary and part-namesake. But sadly neither this book nor the other three by Lois Austen-Leigh were among them. However, I did open the book at another review (7) to see that I had underlined Dorothy’s succinct criticism of what apparently had already become a cliché by 1933: “rather too much secret passage and dopery”. I couldn’t have put it better, Dorothy! I, for one, will now be forever wary of what people are really up to at night when they claim to have been out “duck-shooting”.

But I can’t resist finishing by returning to the Jane Austen references. A tobacco-smoking don in Cambridge is horrified at the thought of possible drug-smuggling at the university and has to go to a service at King’s College Chapel to “take the nasty taste out of my mouth and make me feel clean again.” I am pleased to report that after listening to Scripture and the singing of hymns “he left the place feeling like a different man.” (8) And he was the one who felt he had the courage to quote Jane Austen at a CID officer, using the words of Henry Tilney to Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey:

“If I understand you rightly, you have formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to… Consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” (9)

I would give The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh 5/5 for Setting, 4/5 for Characters, and 3.5/5 for Plot.

For my latest novel Murder and Mr Rochester, see: www.jeanettesears.com/wp/?p_id=789

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTES

(1) Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime, British Library, London, 2017, edited by Martin Edwards. A reprint of the 1931 edition published by Herbert Jenkins.  Available from Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=lois+austen-leigh

(2) See Introduction to the novel by Prof Kirsten T Saxton.

(3) Jeanette Sears, A Murder in Michaelmas, Piquant Editions, Carlisle, 2012. See www.jeanettesears.com/wp/?page_id=27

(4)Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 65%, loc.1979 of 3092 in e-version.

(5) Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 10%, loc.294 of 3092 in e-version.

(6) Martin Edwards (ed), Taking Detective Stories Seriously: the Collected Crime Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers, Tippermuir Books, Perth, 2017.

(7) ibid., p108, in her review of Watch the Wall by Laurence W Meynell (1933).

(8) Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 54%, loc.1646 of 3092 in e-version.

(9) ibid., 53%, loc.1620 of 3092 in e-version.