The Freedom of the Mask is the sixth in Robert McCammon’s “Matthew Corbett” series; the series follows an eighteenth century law-clerk-turned-private-investigator, as he attempts to solve various unpalatable ‘problems’ as part of a nascent investigative agency. Along the way he runs into hypnotists, witches, alligators, and the occasional criminal mastermind.
By this sixth book, Matthew Corbett has had a tough run of luck. Barely surviving a battle in a swamp, and suffering a traumatic head injury, he begins the text being transported, all unknowing, to Professor Fell – a transcontinental underworld kingpin, who would no doubt like to cause Corbett a degree of agony. At the same time, his colleague, Hudson Greathouse, and his on-again-off-again love interest, Berry Grigsby, set out in search of the missing investigator. Given that this is McCammon, it’s probably no surprise that things do not go entirely to plan, for any party.
This is the first book of the series to take place outside of the United States – indeed, the larger portion of the text occurs in London and surrounding environs. McCammon pulls out all the stops here; his London is a grotesquery, an urban hellscape, populated with gin-soaked gangsters and child-madams, murderers, thieves, and uncaring gentry, all appearing and disappearing in a thick blanket of yellow fog. It’s a den of vice and iniquity, and McCammon manages to paint it as such, unapologetically, but lyrically, and with an eye to reinforcing a growing sense of unease, repulsion and simmering horror in the reader. His London is unpleasantly, oozingly alive, coming off the page and into the mind like a brooding stain.
There’s other environs of course. At one point we visit a charming little village in Wales, which gets the full treatment of bucolic splendour. It’s also got a wonderful atmosphere of insidious awfulness, which McCammon evokes masterfully. His world building is vivid and deeply disturbing stuff, and a pleasure to read – albeit a worrying one.
From a character standpoint, we spend most of our time riding along with Matthew again. There are some chapters with Hudson Greathouse as the point-of-view, which act as a nice contrast. McCammon shows that he can spin out a very different voice to that of Matthew Corbett, when given the chance – Greathouse is stubborn, cautious, pragmatic and in some instances highly dangerous. His approach to obstacles, which may or may not involve throwing a table at them, is a joy. Greathouse, the older of the investigators, has a stability of character which it’s great to see more of – and acts as a foil to the rather more mercurial Corbett. Corbett, though, continues to be hardened by his experiences. He’s grown something of a thicker skin, and whilst there’s still an iron core of morality floating at his centre, he’s also prepared to be a little more flexible in his company. Imagining the young law clerk of five books previously associating with gangster and killers is unthinkable – but Corbett slips into London’s underworld, and if he doesn’t cause a ripple, he’s certainly not being used as bait. This slow move of Matthew into a greyer moral existence is intriguing to watch, and credit to the author for making it seem eminently plausible. Matthew’s head is always great fun to inhabit, even when he’s being insufferable – and he’s less so than usual here, feeling more the focused man of action than the fop.
There’s also time spent on Matthew’s relationship with Berry, and we get further insight into the character of that arch-rogue, Professor Fell; in both cases, I won’t approach closely, but will say that their decisions are intriguing, and the depths of character revealed by those actions are equally fascinating.
Plot-wise – well, again, I’ll avoid spoilers. But there’s a lot going on here. By the end of the book, I was turning pages what felt like three at a time to find out what would happen next, and what was happening felt like a solid punch in the gut. There’s a slow burn at the start of the narrative, but McCammon builds the tension out expertly, and each moment of revelation or catharsis is made all the more explosive thereby. There’s more gothic horror and dread crawling around on these pages with each instalment, and this is no exception – it’s terrifying, horrifying, and a great read.