Masks and Mysteries: a natural combination

Masks. The word conjures images of festivals and old-fashioned costume balls. People dressed in wild costumes, hiding their true nature behind a smiling face – or maybe a scary face. You never know what you might find.

It strikes me that masks – that ability to hide some aspect of yourself – is a natural component of mysteries. Maybe fiction in general, but especially mysteries, where so many characters can wear a mask. Good and bad. And it’s up to the sleuth to strip them off.

That happy, contented housewife mother of two? Her mask may be hiding an abusive relationship or other personal problem.

The star athlete on the high school football team? His mask might be hiding drug use, such as steroids to bulk up for the team.

The chatty old woman at the corner store who looks like your grandma? Her mask might be hiding a judgmental character, as she sees the people who pass her register every day.

The curmudgeonly old man who yells at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn? His mask hides the grief at losing his son at a young age and his generosity to the local boys’ club.

The guy who lives in the cardboard box by the river? His mask hides the fortune he made as a young man, when an extravagant lifestyle cost him something he treasured.

Masks don’t merely hide wrong-doing. They hide shame, grief, self-doubt, shyness. Yet it’s critical for the sleuth – be he a police officer, private detective, or amateur – to strip away those masks, however fiercely those around him cling to them.

Was the victim really so generous and selfless? Is the main suspect really such a louse?

Maybe. Maybe not. But one things certain: In the hands of the best mystery writers, everyone wears a mask of some kind and the author doesn’t let them fall off until the perfect moment. Only then can we see the truth that lies underneath.

So tell me, readers: what kind of masks are in the stories you read?

Mary Sutton | @mary_sutton73

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

8 thoughts on “Masks and Mysteries: a natural combination”

  1. Excellent post, Mary. I’m writing a new mystery series and my protagonist is hiding an ugly past. There’s too much to reveal in the first book. Instead of the mask coming off, it’s more like layers peeling away.

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  2. Kathleen, like multiple layers of latex masks? I’m suddenly thinking of a scene in that Looney Tunes movie with Brendan Fraser, where the villain unzips all these “costumes,” each one revealing a different person. 🙂

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  3. Very thought-provoking! My protagonist appears strong on the outside, but she is a softie on the inside and constantly battles her dragons of doubts, which she’s not supposed to have as a martial artist.

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  4. “In the hands of the best mystery writers, everyone wears a mask of some kind and the author doesn’t let them fall off until the perfect moment.” That’s a great line. In lit studies, we talk a lot about “personas” too — issues of identity are always so fascinating!

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  5. In mysteries, people are always pretending to be someone they’re not. Hiding behind a mask–a stereotype, or an act–is sometimes the perfect foil. And don’t our own characters wear a mask? Pretending to be brave when underneath it all they’re scared (like us)?

    Great post!

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