Behind the Mask
Normally I love guilt-ridden tortured heroes. They’re one of my favorite character types, but that’s only as long as they’ve actually done something to feel guilty about. What I don’t like is heroes who feel guilt by proxy, who have a martyr complex, and turn out to be hypocrites. It’s a bad sign for Behind the Mask that before the hero meets the heroine, I was mumbling “Run!” under my breath.
Michael Sullivan used to be a Houston police detective. Then his partner was killed in a drug bust went horribly wrong. Feeling responsible, Michael left the police department to become a private eye and bounty hunter to earn money for his late partner’s family. He will do anything to ease his guilt and help his partner’s family, including taking on a case from a man he doesn’t trust.
Southern Florida nightclub owner Adam Webster is desperate to find his wife, Elisabeth. Six months ago she drugged him, took their son and some stuff out of his safe, and ran. Everyone he’s sent after her has failed, so he’s turned to Michael, who has a reputation for finding people. He notices Michael’s interest when he mentions that Elisabeth took his son. So despite not caring at all for the child, Webster uses the child to play on Michael’s integrity to get him to agree to think about the case. But it’s Webster’s million-dollar fee that gets Michael to take the job.
Elisabeth “Lily” Webster married quite young to a much older man she didn’t love. Adam had taken care of her when she was orphaned, and she felt she owed him. She tried to ignore his obsessive behavior, demands on her, and the isolation he forced upon her. Eventually, out of loneliness, she got pregnant and hid it from Adam until it was too late to terminate the pregnancy. Lily knew Adam was unhappy about the child, but figured he’d grow to love his child. Imagine Lily’s shock when she catches Adam trying to murder their son. Terrified, she takes a chance, drugs her husband, and goes on the run.
As Michael searches for Lily, he gains insights into her character that contradict what Adam told him. Everyone tells him that she is a hardworking and devoted mother and not a bored trophy wife who is disinterested in her child. Once he meets Lily he starts to have second thoughts about notifying her husband of her whereabouts, but he’s been mislead by a woman before and he continues to suspect that maybe Lily isn’t what she seems.
Lily is actually a very good heroine. She never whines about her situation, and uses her head. As soon as she realizes her husband’s intent she plays along with his wants until the opportunity arrives for her to escape with her son. She’s cautious in her actions and in the end Lily proves she doesn’t need anyone to save her. Unfortunately, she’s stuck with Michael.
First off, Michael has nothing to be guilty about. He met a woman and introduced her to his partner. The fact that his partner was a moron and committed adultery with the woman and decided to double cross some drug lords was not something Michael could predict or control, so his being distraught with guilt over it was improbable and hackneyed. But I could forgive him for the martyr routine; what I couldn’t forgive him for was betraying Lily to her husband even as his instincts were telling him something was wrong. I couldn’t forgive him for putting money over the welfare of a woman and a child. I couldn’t forgive him for manipulating the child’s innocent trusting nature to get close to Lily. But most of all, I could not forgive him for being a total hypocrite. He gets mad when Lily won’t admit she’s Elisabeth Webster, especially when he knows that the only reason she’s lying to him is because he is lying to her about who he really is.
On top of the jerk hero, the villain is a cartoonish cliché. Also troublesome are the two scenes in which Lily remembers why she decided to leave her husband; one contradicts the other. It’s almost as if Hingle wrote one reason and then decided on a better one later, but forgot she’d written out the first scenario. It killed the flow of the plotting and made the story even less believable than it was. Finally, with the author’s emphasis on Michael and Lily’s costumes during Mardi Gras, the book’s climax lacked oomph. It wouldn’t be a cliché if it weren’t true; sometimes the forest is more important than the trees.
Overall I was deeply disappointed in Behind the Mask. Lily is the story’s only saving grace. She deserves a better story and a better hero.