Mason (Tor’s Lake, 2015) brings back an engaging protagonist in this serpentine mystery about an obsessed estate owner and a murdered professor.
Elizabeth Cromwell is a San Francisco–based professional dominatrix and the owner of an unusual sex-work business called the English Department. Over the years, she’d become the obsession of Burleigh Polk, a wealthy man who’d displayed an enormous painting of her in his hallway. At the novel’s start, Cromwell is contacted by an investigator who’s working to distribute Polk’s considerable assets in the wake of his tragic death. These assets include several books stamped with her name, with some hollowed out and containing statuettes in her likeness. While perusing Polk’s empty house to retrieve her belongings and view the painting, Cromwell has a chance encounter with University of California, Berkeley, mathematics professor Robert Lavoisier, which ignites a series of intriguing events. He urgently invites her to join him at a nearby bar, but when she arrives there, she discovers that he’s been poisoned. An anonymous person then calls her and demands to know where Lavoisier’s laptop is, believing that she had stolen it. The tough and clever Cromwell at first dismisses the murder as nothing that should concern her—a mere “dysfunctional annoyance”—but soon, as the mystery intensifies, she begins to focus and investigate not only Lavoisier’s death, but also who exactly Polk was and the reasons why he was so obsessed with her. Along the way, she matches wits with the accusatory caller, who turns out to be another Berkeley math professor named Andrei Andreyev. After his suspicions about her are quelled, the case morphs into a formidable whodunit as clues stack up.
More intensive scrutiny of Polk’s belongings further reveal the deceased’s dedicated interest in Cromwell’s image; meanwhile, Mason makes sure that sparks begin to fly between Cromwell and Andrei as they try to solve the murder together, with both of them questioning the circumstances of their alliance: “Is tragedy driving us together?” Mason’s novel is a truly complex concoction that won’t always be easy for readers to digest. However, it’s not only fast-paced and intelligent, but also engagingly atmospheric. Specifically, she exhibits a great practical knowledge of Northern California, particularly its sprawling businesses and notable landmarks, and this gives the entire narrative a sense of place that readers will find to be truly satisfying. The text offers many flourishes of embellished language, particularly after the story introduces a gaggle of dogged detectives on the case, who seem to meet their match in Cromwell, whose bossy, manipulative style and sharp, steely intellect win the day. Also of note is a chapter in which the protagonist gets to fully demonstrate the acumen of her erotic livelihood in her seductive domination of Andreyev. The mystery somewhat convolutedly wraps up with the aid of some masterfully deductive reasoning from Andreyev and Cromwell involving multiple interpretations of a doctoral thesis.
For readers up to the challenge, this mystery is a curious, gilded oddity that’s well worth the time and effort.