Desert Isle Keeper
Behind the Mask
I anticipated the newest release in Carolyn Crane’s The Associates series with both trepidation and glee. How could the new book possibly live up to the previous three books? I’m pleased to say it does and then some.
We’ve been introduced to heroine Zelda, one of the mysterious leaders of the Associates, a shadowy private organization which operates much like the CIA, in the prior books. Little has been revealed about her up to this point in the series. Behind the Mask opens with Zelda preparing to assume her sister Liza’s identity on a dangerous mission. Liza has battled addiction for years and fallen in with a bad set. Liza’s boyfriend/dealer has lost her in a card game, and she must now spend a week in Mexico with some truly disreputable people. Zelda seizes on the chance to take Liza’s place so that she may gather intel on Brujos, the leader of a drug cartel. There is serious trouble brewing in the form of pirates who are holding an oil tanker off the coast of South America, and the Associates desperately need this intel as a bargaining chip in their effort to prevent a large scale disaster.
All does not go as expected, however, once Zelda reaches Brujo’s compound. She is quickly abducted and traded to El Gorrion, an even bigger and more violent narcotic kingpin. After a harrowing plane ride, she’s forced into a vehicle. But before the group now taking her can leave the makeshift airfield, a masked man emerges from the jungle and commences an all-out massacre. With nearly everyone around her dead, Zelda realizes she is possibly looking at Kabakas, a violent guerrilla she hunted for years when she was a field operative for the CIA. At this point, she has no choice but to trust him.
Moving at a breakneck pace, Behind the Mask is packed with intense action and truly creepy bad guys. I vacillated between needing to find out what happened next and needing to look at pictures of fuzzy kittens to lower my blood pressure. By the time the ending came I was exhausted and emotionally wrung out, in the best possible way.
Zelda is a great, multi-faceted heroine. Underneath her exterior armor, she carries a heavy burden of shame, guilt, and grief for a previous mission gone bad. Her recollections during her time in South America reveal the depth of her psychological wounds as well as the reasons for her self-doubt. I appreciated her emotional detachment. She has a temper and self-doubts, however she keeps them in check, determined to carry out her mission coolly and efficiently. She reminded me at times of Madame Lambert from Ice Storm by Anne Stuart, velvet wrapped around steel.
She meets her match in Hugo, a brutal warrior with his own code of honor. He’s irritating and abrasive, bossy and demanding. Somehow it works for him. The chemistry between them is palpable, transforming even unsexy acts like getting stitches and applying ointment to wounds into sensual experiences. And when they finally do become intimate, in one of my favorite lines from the book, Hugo muses: “Just the sound and feel of her skin under his skin was more erotic than anything he’d ever done with all the women he’d ever fucked.”
By the time I finished Behind the Mask I was an emotional puddle of goo. With three dimensional characters who have vulnerabilities with their strengths, Behind the Mask is as much about the emotional journeys of the hero and heroine as it is about action and suspense. It’s a veritable thrill ride and I loved every minute.
This is the fourth book in The Associates series. It may be read as a standalone, though I recommend the previous books as well.