Behind the Mask by Metsy Hingle
(Mira, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-55166-926-9
**
When a book’s characters are, um, not complex, it’s difficult to make them interesting for 379 pages. At one point I actually started counting how many different ways this author could find to tell me exactly the same thing.

Michael Sullivan is an ex-cop who retired from the Houston police force following the death of his partner. Nowadays, Michael hires himself out as, among other things, a private detective with a reputation for being able to find anyone, even if they don’t wish to be found. That’s why, when his own employees fail repeatedly, Adam Webster hires Michael to find his wife.

According to Adam, Elisabeth Webster has been missing for six months since absconding with cash and jewelry from his safe and their three year old son, Timmy. Naturally, Michael is outraged that she would steal a little boy from his father. He could also give the million-dollar fee to his partner’s widow and children, so he agrees to take the case.

Michael quickly finds Elisabeth, who is using her childhood nickname of Lily, in New Orleans. He finds her rather sweet and frightened – not at all the person he expected based on Adam’s description. Michael also finds her extremely attractive.

So attractive, apparently, that he loses every speck of professionalism as well as his judgment, ethics and the heroism we were led to expect from his earlier behavior. Originally, we see Michael as a tough guy with a heart of gold, making the world safer for the little people while protesting modestly that he’s just after the money.

As soon as he meets Lily, though, he becomes a dishonest manipulator because he’s hot for her body. He knows she’s married but pressures her into spending time with him – even sinks to using her child to get to her – because he wants her. I guess we know he’s the good guy because he’s better looking than her husband and doesn’t have nasty villain sex with hookers.

We’re intended to sympathize with Michael’s burden guilt over his partner’s death. Michael blames himself, and the incident is rehashed and re-examined repeatedly. The difficulty is that neither the other characters nor even the reader believe he’s responsible so his insistent self-flagellation quickly gets monotonous.

What it is about Lily that drives these guys into a frenzy is unclear. She’s sweet and obviously devoted to her child, but the guys are mostly attracted to her because she’s beautiful, which doesn’t make anyone look deep. She also comes off a bit dim, so it’s a shame the author doesn’t explain how she managed to elude all the thugs Adam sent after her.

There are also some other biggish holes in the story. Adam is portrayed as a killer with ice water in his veins, and there are a couple of gruesome descriptions of his crimes, but he’s astonishingly inept when it comes to disposing of one small child. Lily’s rationale for not going to the authorities with her suspicions about him are so flimsy that it’s clear they’re just an excuse to draw the story out, and Michael loses his touted investigative abilities at strange moments (he doesn’t use his credit card to buy plane tickets for Lily and Timmy because it might be traced – then makes the reservations in their real names).

There’s a lot of repetition (Lily’s scared, Lily adores her son, Michael’s guilty, Adam’s a slimeball) and virtually every scene repeats these themes without adding anything new.

Slowing the story down further is a predictable writing style in which many background details are immediately followed by a paragraph of exposition describing how the character came to think/do/feel something. Some elements also receive lengthy flashbacks. We hear about something, then later we get to relive it through a flashback, then we might even get to hear the whole thing described to some other character. The characters don’t develop, they just repeat themselves and it gets tedious hearing the same things over and over.

All in all, it was a bit like driving around the same block over and over. No matter how pretty the houses are, after a while you’re just longing for something new to look at.

--Judi McKee


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