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.
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.
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!)
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.’ “
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.
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.
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]