Novel: Masquerade by Gayle Lynds

I’ve seen Gayle Lynds’ first novel Masquerade (1996) cited on of some spy novel best-of lists, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. Like her more recent novel The Last Spymaster, I found it a decent read, with a suitably convoluted plot and lots of airport thriller ingredients. But in the end this wild concoction felt overrated.

Lynds’ hero is Liz Sansborough, who opens the novel as an amnesiac, being nursed back to health by her loving husband Gordon in quiet Santa Barbara. Liz’s vaguely idyllic world is shattered when an assassination attempt begins the long, slow process of resurrecting her memory. She learns she’s a spy, and is spirited off to a training facility in Colorado to prepare for a special assignment that has something to do with a notorious international assassin known as the Carnivore. But soon she realizes that Gordon and her CIA handlers may not be giving her the full story, and as she gradually starts putting her identity back together, her situation reveals itself to be even more perilous and complicated than she could have ever imagined.

Masquerade’s plot is a sprawling, twisty hall of mirrors, and it’s an adequate action-adventure romp, more 24 than Rubicon. Plot reversals abound, and the body count is through the roof. It’s also increasingly outlandish as it goes along, layering one pop-culture spy trope on top of another. The labyrinthine plot trots out amnesia, brainwashing, doppelgangers, mind control drugs, even a sort of Fountain of Youth health spa; it’s like a clearinghouse of campy Mission: Impossible premises mashed together into one sweeping mosaic. Despite the inherent silliness of some of its components, I found its big picture structure well engineered, and there’s effective characterization throughout. (Lynds is particularly good about integrating rich female characters into her spy universe, which is refreshing.) But unfortunately the devil’s in the details, particularly in terms of writing craft: overuse of exclamation points, clumsy point-of-view shifts, villainous monologuing, and convenient infodumps are some of the more egregious style issues. So, it’s got its pros and cons, but ultimately didn’t quite satisfy: it’s definitely my cup of tea on a broad level, but in the future I’ll probably choose a slightly different flavor.

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