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Novel Studies: DEATH MASK by Graham Masterton


In DEATH MASK, by Graham Masterton, a police sketch artists drawings come to life to wreak havoc.  Masterton's been writing thrillers and horror for over thirty years and Death Mask is evidence of his experience and mastery.

Molly is an artist who does work for the local police force as a sketch artist.  When asked to sketch the picture of a man who has attacked a woman in an elevator, she performs the task, producing the chilling visage of a man that will come to be known as Red Mask due to the color of his face.  Molly's mother-in-law, Sissy, is her supernatural mentor, guiding her as the more unusual aspects of the story start to come to life.  As the tale progresses, Molly must draw other things and people in an attempt to stop Red Mask, culminating in a thrilling ending that includes her dead father come back in the same fashion as the drawing of Red Mask.

It is fitting the name Masterton includes the word "master, because the author is truly a master of suspense.  Any writer can learn from this work - it is a study in creating realistic characters, in pacing, and originality.  Let's break down a few things from the novel and see what we can learn from it.

CHARACTERS - The relationship between Sissy and Molly is wonderfully drawn, using description and dialogue to paint a picture of the two together.  They are separated by thirty years, but are kindred spirits.  Masterton shows us this with his well-written scenes of them at home as Molly works on her drawings and they try to unravel the mystery behind Red Mask, describing the two of them with illuminating phrases such as, "they were spectacularly untidy," and "smiling at each other, as if they shared a secret that they would never disclose to anybody."  The dialogue and conversations are also crafted well, each character has his or her own voice and nothign is said that doesn't serve the purpose of revealing character or moving the story forward - something all writers should strive for.

DESCRIPTION - Masterton is brilliant at creating a visual with just a few words.  He describes Molly as having "hair like little brown flames" and his details are exquisite as when Sissy watches Molly in a mirror and sees Molly wave her cigarrette hand and then over the flowers blocking her direct view smoke rises.  It is this type of description - short on words, but high on vivid detail - that separates a good writer from the pack.

ACTION - The books moves along at a brisk pace, but still slows in all the right spots to let us enjoy the quiet and small moments, such as when Sissy's dead husband returns and they spend tender time together.  Red Mask progressively makes things worse for Molly and the detective who's helping her, as he's just as interested to find out how he came into being as they are.  The story builds well to a strong and satisfying climax, avoiding the all too common pitfall of making readers say, What?! when all is revealed at the end.

Death Mask is a fun read, and a touching one.  It gives a good example of how to bring action and thrills without sacrificing literary quality and human emotion.  It is highly recommended as a page-turner and as tutelage for writers on how to craft a well-rounded suspense story.


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