The Lucifer Mask
Kathleen Rich | Tower Books | 1967 | 155 pages
After the death of her father—the head of the Coralee Wear fashion company—young nurse Juliette Knight sails to Madeira upon the invitation of her father’s former business executive, Charles Trent, for a restful retreat at his family estate. Upon arrival, she finds that the mild and supportive Charles she remembers from New York has become more aggressive and easy to anger. He seems particularly upset that Juliette has brought along her aunt Dotts as a traveling companion. Meeting Charles’ mother (“You must call me Mother Trent, dear.”), a grotesquely corpulent shut-in who was blinded by a medical condition, does little to lessen her anxiety.
Juliette fears that someone has been watching her since she sailed from New York—someone that means her harm. On a brief stopover in Lisbon, she discovers a knife protruding from the back of her seat after a theatre performance. Her first night in Madeira, she blacks out after drinking a glass of warm milk, leading her to believe that she was poisoned. She wakes to the care of Sebastian Malroux, a ruggedly handsome doctor that she remembers as a passenger from her cruise ship. But has she seen him somewhere before?
Her suspicions towards everyone aroused, Juliette nonetheless becomes enmeshed in a romantic intrigue. Charles unexpectedly pressures her into marrying him, although his mother barely conceals her contempt towards her prospective daughter-in-law. After an initial romantic encounter, Sebastian distances himself from Juliette, seemingly holding back a terrible secret. As more incidents against her life occur, Juliette wonders who she can really trust. And then there is the matter of the mysterious woman living in the abandoned room on the unused third floor of Trent House, unacknowledged by all the other residents.
The Lucifer Mask immerses its young heroine in a modestly effective environment of paranoia, as she struggles to discover the person responsible for the increasingly bold attempts on her life. Against this backdrop of growing fear, Juliette evades the amorous pursuit of Charles and is frustrated that Sebastian suddenly resists her affections. Due to the archaic views of her father regarding the role of women in the workplace, Juliette briefly reflects on the limited opportunities available for her in the family business (“Some men don’t like working for a skirt”), but then restricts herself to an arbitrary romantic choice between the soft, round-chinned Charles and the rough-and-tumble Sebastian. The glass ceiling at Coralee Wear figures directly into the final plot twist, a reveal that comes with little surprise.
Although her stalker leaves behind enough evidence to send Juliette to the police, she would rather find someone to trust and share her confidence than simply seeking physical protection. Her patronizing, would-be beau Sebastian would have made her father proud with his summation, “You ought to be spanked for this, a big girl like you not taking better care.”