The Death Mask Murders, Laraine Stephens
The first in a projected series named for crime reporter Reggie da Costa, THE DEATH MASK MURDERS is set in 1918 in Melbourne, where a wild storm comes out of nowhere, battering Brighton, forcing two strangers - would be artist, country girl, and companion Emma Hart (who was mildly injured by a falling tree in the storm) and shell-shocked returned serviceman Max Rushforth (who rescues her) to take shelter in the cellar of a derelict mansion, where they discover three death masks, and the lair of a previously unidentified serial killer.
Stepping back a bit from the summary, some background, as although this is supposedly the da Costa series, Hart and Rushforth are very much the focus of this debut novel. She's a country girl from the Wimmera, Donald to be specific, now living in Brighton with her very wealthy, independent, and fascinating Aunt Florence. He's a returned serviceman, suffering from a serious dose of shell-shock, working at the Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, living somewhere nearby. The discovery of the death masks turns even more sinister when Hart returns to the scene after their initial encounter, draws the sinister and very creepy masks, and finds herself trapped in the cellar when an unknown person finds here there. Rescued (again) by Rushforth, de Costa, who is in the picture courtesy of his mother, friend to Florence, keen to marry him off to the very eligible young Hart, is then able to identify two of the victims that the death masks relate to - both murdered, presumably by other people, but all three of the central characters are acutely aware that there's a very sinister killer lurking in Brighton.
Once the police get involved, of course the easy target is selected, and Rushforth becomes chief suspect, and is locked up just because his behaviour is as unpredictable as you'd expect from somebody suffering shell-shock. Meanwhile Hart, whose fiancé died on the Somme is struggling with her feelings for Rushforth, her desire to clear his name, as is Rushforth's friend Dr Silas Bacon, who the young pair had turned to for an explanation of death masks, triggering his own suspicions, leading him to return to Ararat and the Asylum where he worked years before.
Sounds complicated, and it is a bit, especially as there's a heap more backstory to each of these characters, although some of the stronger personalities really help maintain interest (it was really not hard at all to like the character of Aunt Florence - no nonsense, wealthy but not obnoxious about it, plain speaking and really strong). Emma Hart is compassionate and understandable, if not a bit wishy-washy at times, and Max Rushforth believable as the damaged returned serviceman who might seem a bit dodgy but you hope isn't. Reggie da Costa on the other hand is going to be a bit of a challenge to maintain as a future series star, he's slimy, more than a bit self-involved and somewhat unconvincing as an investigator (although self-interest in his journalistic career might carry that).
THE DEATH MASK MURDERS uses the concept of the death masks as an interesting "quirk" for a serial killer, and the ultimate confirmation of the killer (who isn't that hard to guess to be honest), was interesting (particularly from a personal point of view, with a family connection to the appalling outcomes of alleged treatment at Aradale Asylum, having also spent a very sobering evening touring the place, where the aftermath of shock treatment, and the places where they performed lobotomies etc are still visible and really distressing). The time period feels very authentically depicted, and the trials of a society dealing with day to day complications in a time of war worked. There is a hefty tendency to tell as opposed to show, no worse than many other debut novels though, but that did slow down some of the tenser components of the story. Overall an interesting idea, and an interesting cast of characters, but you do really have to wonder where the series is going to go with the flagged "star of the show" (a description that you can't help but suspect he'd like a lot) being very much a bit player here.
Death is just a close shave away.
It is February 1918. Somewhere in the bayside suburbs of Melbourne, the Death Mask Murderer is lurking, engaged in a ritualistic killing spree: shaving the heads of young women, strangling them and creating a gruesome memento of each in the form of a death mask.
As a wild storm batters Brighton, Emma Hart, an aspiring artist, and Max Rushforth, a shell-shocked ex-soldier, take refuge in the cellar of a derelict mansion, the killer's lair and home to his sinister collection of plaster casts. With Max under the spotlight of the police investigation, Emma calls on the expertise of crime reporter, Reggie da Costa, and Dr Silas Bacon, an expert in death masks, to prove his innocence, unaware that she, too, is in the killer's sights.