Review: City of Masks by S. D. Sykes

City of Masks by S. D. Sykes is the third Somershill Manor mystery, where young Lord Somershill flees England for the wonders of Venice and becomes involved in a bizarre murder investigation that plunges him into the depths of this secretive medieval city.

There’s a quote by Neil Gaiman that stuck with me while reading Oswald de Lacy’s adventures in medieval Venice: “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” This is true of Venice in 1358: Oswald, Lord Somershill, has been greatly affected by the events described in Plague Land and The Butcher Bird (Somershill Manor Mysteries #1 and #2), and thoughts of England simmer just below his consciousness. And why not, as Marilyn Stasio of The New York Times Book Review perceptively describes:

“It’s no fun reading a medieval mystery if it isn’t steeped in filth, squalor and pestilence. S. D. Sykes gets right to the point in Plague Land, which serves it all up in vivid detail, from the noxious smells to an actual burial pit, heaped with the putrefying bodies of plague victims.”

Noxious smells are part and parcel of Venice six hundred years ago, fifty years ago, and even now. One of the charms of City of Masks is Ms. Sykes’s talent at presenting Venice as a character in its own right—majestic, frenzied, a city at the fulcrum of the known universe.

Venice might have started her life as a marshy refuge from invading barbarians, but now she was the largest and richest city in Europe. The hinge of two continents. The funnel of trade from the East to the West. She had once been a haven from the outside world, but now she found herself at the very heart of it.

For Oswald and his mother, Venice is a way-station while they await a ship to the Holy Land. They are paying to stay in the palazzo of an old friend, John Bearpark, but they are not exactly living as pilgrims. Oswald’s mother constantly prods him to participate in the life of the city, including witnessing an execution, much to Oswald’s distaste.

Rather than watch the burning of a man whose crime “was to have been caught in bed with another man,” Oswald beats a hasty retreat to a quiet corner of the Piazza San Marco. Unfortunately, he is confronted by a group of men in uniform, members of the feared and ubiquitous Signori di Notte, the secret police of Venice. Oswald is annoyed and decided that the men “did not deserve my politeness, nor my deference. In retrospect, this was a mistake.”

He is quickly ushered into the palace of the doge and is interviewed by a middle-aged man. Oswald’s interrogator asks many questions but is particularly focused on Oswald’s choice to stay at Ca’Bearpark.

“Why?” he asked, “There are many inns and hospices in Venice. Even ones suitable for a nobleman such as yourself.” 

“John Bearpark is an old friend of the de Lacy family.” I said, choosing not to mention that this so-called friend was also charging us to stay at his home.

“Bearpark has a beautiful young wife, doesn’t he?” He said suddenly, taking me by surprise. I looked up to see that, for the first time in the interview, the man had smiled, cracking the skin at the corners of his mouth and revealing a set of irregular pointed teeth.

“Is she beautiful?” I said. “I hadn’t noticed.”

I made the mistake of adding a shrug to this comment, which caused him to sit up straighter in his chair and fix me with a glare. “Do you like women, Lord Somershill?” he demanded.

“Of course I do,” I said quickly, thinking back to the man who was probably still burning to death in the Piazzetta, “but I keep away from the wives of other men.”

The other inhabitants of Ca’Bearpark are an English brother and sister, Bernard and Margery Jagger, and John Bearpark’s grandson, Enrico. Enrico repeatedly tries to befriend Oswald to lift his spirits and show him a good time in the gambling dens and brothels of Venice, but Oswald is beset by melancholy. For months, he resists Enrico’s entreaties to embrace the delights of the city but eventually succumbs to the lure of dicing. Like gamblers throughout history, Oswald is convinced that “luck would not continue to desert” him. He yearns to forget himself in the excitement of Hazard.

I had been a prudent, cautious boy, and I had grown into a prudent, cautious man. So you might wonder how I became a gambler? How the thrill of taking a risk had suddenly become so appealing to me? The answer was this—that playing dice had reawakened something within me. It had reminded me of what it felt like to be joyful. And this was an emotion that had been absent from my life for too long.

Oswald’s sense of joy is fleeting, for on his return from a night of gambling punctuated by horrific losses, he stumbles over a body “face-down across the marble steps of the water gate.” He rolls over the stiff carcass, “expecting to see a face.”

Instead I was confronted by the ugliest carnival mask I had ever seen—sewn from red leather and scored with a knife. I had to look a second time before I realized that the light had tricked me, and this was no mask. It was a person’s face, with skin as raw and shredded as a butchered carcass.

It’s someone well known to Oswald: Enrico Bearpark. Inevitably, Oswald is drawn into the murder investigation. Oswald’s mother proclaims to the grieving grandfather that her son is a “great investigator,” and when John Bearpark pleads with him to solve his grandson’s murder, Oswald agrees—for a fee. As Bearpark says, “It will take a young man to find Enrico’s murderer.”

City of Masks is an apt description of Venice, a city where duplicity and secrets abound.


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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!


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