There might be a better way to take the icy sting out of a Vermont winter, but curling up with Daniel Hecht's City of Masks has to rank as a near-perfect escape from cold reality. Although the writer is one of us -- living in this Northeastern clime, that is -- he has crafted a novel set in steamy New Orleans, where the supernatural is standard.
In the Big Easy, some things are very difficult. At least that's what Lucretia "Cree" Black discovers when she accepts an assignment there. Of course, adversity is a given for this 38-year-old paranormal investigator. Her job entails struggling with unknown, potentially violent entities of the netherworld and navigating an ordinary world full of skeptics. For her, ridicule is an occupational hazard.
The Seattle-based Cree is not a charlatan psychic, and Hecht is far from a schlocky horrormeister. In 1989 the author left behind a career as a noted guitarist and Windham Hill recording artist to pursue the literary life. After two previous novels, Skull Session and The Babel Effect, he continues the highbrow thriller tradition with Masks.
His protagonist is an empath with a Ph.D. in psychology who insists on a scientific approach to all things ethereal. She is a fascinating creation -- a fearless but fragile widow not yet ready to reconnect with love. The story throws plenty of appealing bachelors at Cree, beginning with her techno-
logically brilliant business partner, Edgar Mayfield. He's smitten. She's not so sure.
While Edgar's away on another case, Cree is hired by attractive Ron Beauforte to look into the haunting of an 1851 mansion owned by a prominent Crescent City family. He's dubious about such things, but whatever's going on has thoroughly unhinged his sister, Lila Beauforte Warren.
"Most 'ghosts' appear to be residual, fragmentary elements of human consciousness -- intense memories, traumas, feelings, or just drives -- that continue to manifest independently of a living body," Cree suggests at one juncture. "Some are more fully integrated personalities... there's a possibility that some ghosts are rare forms of geomagnetic phenomena."
The spectral beings at the Beauforte house could date back to before the Civil War. Or perhaps they're tied to the unsolved murder of a tenant who was living there two years earlier. Cree knows that her team -- which includes a researcher named Joyce Wu -- has to behave "like archaeologists delving down through the layers of time." To accomplish that, she brings some of the many gizmos they have acquired to check out their theories: radar motion detectors, infrared cameras, night-vision equipment and such. But her six highly developed senses do most of the work.
Cree tries to tease out the human dimension by interviewing the people involved. She also tends to inadvertently take on the accents and mannerisms of her clients, all the better to comprehend what spirits they might be manifesting. There's a limit, though, to her metaphysical gifts. Before leaving for the South, Cree is unable to help an elderly woman hoping to commune with a cherished dead dog. This ain't no Crossing Over.
At the Beaufortes' place, she encounters forces more fierce and incomprehensible than any in her experience. Meanwhile, Lila is falling apart and her brother Ron becomes increasingly hostile to Cree for asking too many personal questions. Their mother Charmian is a manipulative grande dame who resists revealing the skeletons in her ancestral closet.
Edgar's stuck in Massachusetts. In need of allies, Cree swaps information with a local African-American reporter, the delightful Delisha "Deelie" Brown, who has a theory about the murder: voodoo. She has snapped pictures of some hidden hex symbols on the fence of the sprawling estate. Plot-wise, Hecht has his mojo working.
Cree also brainstorms with Paul Fitzpatrick, the handsome psychiatrist treating poor Lila. He's another hunk on the horizon, if only the empath can untangle herself from the sorrow of losing her husband. That private memory remains untapped for most of the tale, as does Cree's own long-ago ghost scare.
Hecht maintains suspense even when pausing to explore the psyches of his complex characters or to consider the esoteric puzzles of the universe. And with dialogue as crisp as a Vermont December morning, City of Masks also functions as an off-beat tourism guide to the sultry, sinister side of New Orleans.