“Freedom of the Mask”
By Robert McCammon
$ 26.95 (Deluxe hardcover Edition)
After a series of highly successful novels in the horror genre, Robert McCammon switched to a series of historical murder mysteries, set in the years around 1700.
In the first Matthew Corbett novel, “Speaks the Nightbird,” Corbett, a magistrate’s assistant, investigates charges of witchcraft in Fount Royal, South Carolina.
Corbett moves on to New York in subsequent novels, becoming, in the course of things, a “problem solver,” that is a private detective, in NYC.
(We give the real Edgar Allen Poe credit for inventing the first literary private detective, August Dupin, in the mid-1800s. McCammon puts his detective 150 years earlier.)
Corbett’s work will involve him in a desperate struggle with the master criminal Professor Fell.
Why are cruel, demented, criminal geniuses often professors?
One thinks of Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis.
I have known scores of university professors; a few were geniuses, and to be sure a good many were eccentric and unpleasant, but none were sadistic monsters intent on world domination—taking over the department, sure, but not world domination.
Now McCammon’s work has morphed again, less sleuthing and more action thriller, like a Saturday afternoon matinee, full of bizarre characters, chases, combat, captures, perilous escapes. The 530 pages are divided into 43 chapters, most ending in a cliffhanger. Note: There are also some very nasty scenes of sadism and torture, one involving a torturer/dentist.
In any case, after dangerous and explosive adventures with Professor Fell, Matthew takes an apparently harmless assignment in Charleston, S.C., in “River of Souls,” the novel before this one, and then is kidnapped by one of Fell’s henchmen and taken to London.
“Freedom of the Mask" is constructed in a series of episodes, each in a meticulously described setting.
In trouble from the start, Corbett spends some time in Newgate Prison and it is amazingly awful, the anteroom to hell. There is no interest in prison reform.
The neighborhoods of London are controlled by gangs, fighting for territory, each extorting money from local merchants for “protection.”
The Whitechapel District and, it seems, much of London, all classes, from hookers to judges, is becoming addicted to White Velvet, gin that has been laced with drugs. Once addicted, victims will do anything for their next fix, and the trade is hard to stop, being ferociously demand-driven.
As in the previous Corbett novels, McCammon’s research comes to the fore. London, in particular the Whitechapel District, is described in sordid detail. It is dangerous to walk down any street and absolutely foolhardy to do so after dark. Thugs and drunks are everywhere as are, naturally, taverns, every few feet, with wonderful names: The Question Mark, Gray Dog, Lucky Skull, Piper’s Folly, Golden Slipper, Lion’s Den, The Bat and the Cat, the Hag, Four Wild Dogs, Sip A’ Courage, Long-Legged Liza, Three Sisters, the Giddy Pig, Drunk Crow, Leper’s Kiss, and the Goat’s Breath.
Prostitutes abound, called dollies, doxies, painted wagtails, and more.
By comparison, the Victorian slums of Dickens’ novels are a paradise.
Much of this book is grim, but some elements of “The Mask” are truly funny.
Corbett finds clues in a tabloid called the “Pin,” a forerunner of the “National Enquirer,” a scandal sheet of dubious veracity but immense popularity.
People desperately want to read about Lady Everlust’s two-headed baby and all about the killer in a golden mask called Albion, the protector of Britain, and many believe the stories.
One can feel McCammon’s delight in demonstrating how little, especially in the world of vice, is new under the sun.
Corbett will have adventures, strive to save Berry, his loved one, from a fate worse than death, uncover several competing criminal enterprises, learn that that Professor Fell is indeed involved with White Velvet and a lot more mind-altering drugs besides. He will close with Fell in his lair in Wales, a little village he has bought and restored, called The Beautiful Bed, that is to say, the grave, where Fell conducts mass brain-washing experiments.
As in a James Bond adventure, the novel ends in explosions and mayhem and, as in a Bond adventure, Corbett goes on to his next quixotic task.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.