Jennifer Mason’s Tor’s Lake is a deep dive into a dark, secret, and distorted world that holds glimmers of light at its heart.
Dominatrix Elizabeth Cromwell is skilled in the use of whips, canes, and switches, when requested and always within reason. But in Jennifer Mason’s neo-noir mystery, Tor’s Lake, Elizabeth’s ordered world is turned upside down when she finds herself embroiled in the search for the truth about Geoffrey Dilworth, a mysterious, well-dressed stranger who seeks her help, leaves her a valuable gift, then disappears, leaving no trace.
Elizabeth—a tall, comely blonde—is portrayed as intelligent and possessed of a quick wit that always seems to put her one step ahead of others. At home in the world of sexual fantasies, role playing, and bondage, Elizabeth is used to hearing, and keeping, secrets. “Some men who can’t talk to anyone else, they talk to me,” she says, seeing her work as providing a much-needed service.
But she wants to move on, sell her business (not surprisingly called “the English Department”), and get married. In order to free herself from entanglement with the creepy, very likely mentally ill Geoffrey Dilworth and his quarter-million-dollar gift of boxes of classic comics, Elizabeth must find the dominatrix who humiliated him by painting him in strategic places with nail polish, leaving him tied up, and calling his wife to come get him. “I want to get married. I don’t want this worry hovering over my future,” Elizabeth says.
With only the name Prescott to go on, Elizabeth is hopeful that meeting with a lawyer by that name will yield some results, but the two are caught up in a protest near San Francisco’s Civic Center. A violent explosion rocks the area, leaving Elizabeth injured and in possession of the leader dog of an old, blind, black man she had noticed earlier. Hoping to return the dog, she makes her way through a city in chaos, attempting to locate the blind man while searching out clues to Geoffrey’s whereabouts.
The plot is complex, tightening into a dense, tangled skein involving multiple minor characters, including a supposed descendant of legendary composer and pianist Franz Liszt. It is easy to lose track of the narrative and get entangled in the abstruse dialogue as characters talk around and through, rather than to, each other. Midway through, Elizabeth’s comment “We were listening past each other” seems to reflect the state of most interactions.
Pacing is sensitive to events but is hampered by digressions, including a lengthy discussion of the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. While this commentary may appear irrelevant, its insights apply also to the workings of Mason’s book: “Fitzgerald’s magic is evasion.”
Errors include the attribution of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” to Beethoven and occasional mistakes in grammar, syntax, and punctuation. The periodic inclusion of summaries is helpful, but the struggle to follow the plot through its many twists and turns is complicated by dialogue that seems to want to hide as much as it reveals.
It is the descriptive writing that really shines—such as a description of a woman as “a watery-eyed belonger to many do-gooder organizations,” and of the dominatrix Isis as someone who wore “a ring that belonged on a pope.”
Jennifer Mason’s Tor’s Lake is a deep dive into a dark, secret, and distorted world that holds glimmers of light at its heart. Just be sure to bring a full oxygen tank.
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