Tuesday, April 12, 2016

THE MASK, Taylor Stevens (Vanessa Michael Munroe #6)

There are some mystery authors -- maybe a dozen, maybe a few more than that -- whose books I follow from one release to the next, making sure I get a copy of each new title when it's published. But because I am 95 percent sure I'll enjoy those books (and also that the authors don't "need" my attention at the time of release ... they are already pretty well know), I don't race to open the covers. I wait until I can enjoy them at their own best pace.

So last week I indulged in reading THE MASK, which is the sixth book featuring Vanessa Michael Munroe. Call her Munroe, secret agent style ... or call her Michael, which is what her long-term lover Miles Bradford knows she calls herself. Slight of build, able to adeptly disguise herself as a young man as needed, Michael is also a very dangerous killer when in jeopardy.

Her reunion with Miles at the start of this book marks the end of a long period of recovery for Munroe. Her teammates in a private company based in the United States valued her for her multiple languages and her ability to unravel codes and intrigues of astounding complexity. But her path's been dangerous not just to herself but also to her friends. It's been a long time since she dared to be geographically close to even Miles Bradford, even though she has longed for the comfort of being with the one person who's ever really accepted her in all her emotionally scarred integrity.

Stevens, diverging in rare one-sentence hints from Munroe's viewpoint, hints to readers that the tender and amazing reunion of the lovers, in Japan of all places, isn't the honest coupling it appears. Munroe's tendency to blame herself for the hint of awkwardness, and for the puzzle of Miles not inviting her into his work in a Japanese biotech company, distorts her vision for long enough to ramp up the danger and risk involved. In perhaps the book's most bizarre yet also insightful twist, when Munroe has to turn professional to help Miles, she insists on being paid Big Bucks by their security company -- something the company leader back in the States finds despicable. Still, for the person Munroe is, and for the highly unlikely face that she can indeed love Miles, it's a necessary transformation of the emotional ground -- taking her out of the shoes of a woman desperate to save her beloved, and giving her instead the equivalent of steel-toed boots and a highly technical construction to pull together.

If you appreciate the powerful darkness of Karen Slaughter's crime fiction, this is for you; it's also the closest there is to a woman's version of Jack Reacher from Lee Child's books, although Munroe is more self-aware and gives herself a different skill set. But that pressure to set things right, and to undo injustice, is spot on target.

Curious about the title? No, it's not a reference to kinky sex, but rather to the way some people choose to protect their vulnerabilities -- and also, I think, to the willingness of many a Westerner to continue to buy the myth of the inscrutable Asian face. By the end of THE MASK, I also knew a bit more about myself. Which, come to think of it, may be the highest achievement for any book worth reading.

If you're new to Taylor Stevens, take a few minutes to explore her author website before you dip into the books. Yes, I think there's more depth in this book if you've read the other five, but you don't have to. On the other hand, after you read THE MASK, you may decide, as I have, that you want them all.

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