What other city in the world is as associated with masks as Venice? Venice, where the stones are soaked with blood and history, and people are never what they seem. In City of Masks, we are transported to 14th century Venice, specifically 1358 when Venice was besieged by the Hungarians and lawlessness and treachery abounded.
Oswald de Lacy, also known as Lord Somershill, is on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when he and his mother are stuck at the home of John Bearpark, an English merchant living in Venice. De Lacy is running from something, and has clearly lost the will to live when first we meet. His problems are exacerbated by a new love of gambling, which leaves him broke and in debt to a nasty character. In the midst of his misery, he discovers the murdered remains of Enrico Bearpark, the merchant’s grandson. The elder Bearpark hires de Lacy to find the murderer, setting him on a quest that reveals as much about himself as about Venice and the people who live there.
This is a dense story, slightly reminiscent of Donna Leon’s contemporary Commissario Brunetti series in style, but filled with rich historical detail. Sykes brings 14th century Venice alive, from the stench of the sewage in the canals, to the island of lepers and the convent/brothel, to gilded palazzos. The action moves fairly slowly, but the story is captivating enough to keep you engaged. De Lacy is a troublesome character at first. It’s hard to find sympathy for him since we don’t know what has caused his melancholy (unless you’ve read the first two in the Lord Somershill series, which I hadn’t). However, as he begins his investigation and untangles a mess of clues and false trails, the clever, confident Lord reveals himself. Determined to find Enrico’s killer, de Lacy is unprepared for where the trail ultimately leads him.
The writing is quite good, with just enough scene descriptions to convey a sense of time, place, and atmosphere but not so much that the reader skims ahead. De Lacy’s relationships are most interesting here – with his mother, with Enrico, with Bearpark’s wife Filomena, and with his own past. Clearly de Lacy has lost his way; by the end of the story he has found his way back. I enjoyed this one enough that I will likely go back and read books 1 and 2, and will look for new entries in the series. Recommended for fans of historical mysteries.