Most readers know Jack Vance, who died just this past May, as a science fiction writer. He’s certainly worth remembering as one, racking up a pile of Nebula, World Fantasy, and Hugo awards (including a Hugo for his autobiography This Is Me, Jack Vance!).
Lesser known are Vance’s mystery works, though he wrote several, three of them under the Ellery Queen name for the popular series. He nabbed an Edgar award for Best First Mystery Novel in 1961 for The Man in the Cage, a suspense novel about an American smuggler in the North African desert.
|Splatterlight's Lindle edition of The Flesh Mask.|
The Man in the Cage may have been considered Vance’s first mystery novel by the Edgar committee, but it wasn’t his first thriller. That distinction belongs to The Flesh Mask. Originally published as Take My Face in 1957, the classic revenge story is the only one of Vance’s novels to have been published under the name Peter Held. It was re-released in a limited edition in 1988 under Vance’s real name, though it’s easiest to find today in the Kindle version, bearing Vance's preferred title, released by Splatterlight Press.
Robert Struve is introduced in the book as a typical kid of thirteen, a comic book-reading, denim-clad paper delivery boy, differing from his friends “only in detail.” After he’s hit by a car and disfigured in a gasoline fire, he remains a star athlete through high school, but overhears the words of a gang of pretty sorority girls one night as they express their disgust with his looks. A hazing ritual gone awry sends Robert to a detention facility, and after his release, the girls start turning up dead, their faces slashed, in a gruesome series of sex murders. Robert is the obvious suspect, but he’s now had plastic surgery -- and there’s no record of his new face.
Classic slasher, right?
|Original hardback with the title Take My Face.|
Not entirely. The Flesh Mask may not be the brilliant stuff most discerning pulp readers know is out there (see Horace McCoy, Jim Thompson, David Goodis), but it’s a solid piece of writing. The plot propels itself forward, the writing is crisp and lively, and Vance has bothered to flesh out even the most minor of characters. While the stereotypical characters are all in place for a B movie-style thriller (among the girls there’s a slutty one and a prude), he gives us more than he even has to.
A perfect example is Robert’s father. Though he’s dead and gone from the family picture as soon as page two, we get a clear picture of the thwarted salesman who knew “a hundred smutty stories.” In just a few well-chosen lines, we know that guy. One of my favorite descriptions is of Julie Hovard (the main object of Robert’s teen desires) when she’s still a spoiled little girl at the book’s beginning:
Her skin shone from expensive foods, pure milk, the finest soaps; her clothes were as crisp and fresh as new popcorn.
All but one of the hacking scenes take place offstage, but Vance makes sure we know how brutal they are. They’re almost no match for the simple descriptions of Robert’s face in repugnance, though. Having to stifle gasps, his own mother assesses his burnt-off eyebrows, the holes where his nose once was, and his left cheek that’s now “like a dish of brains.” The plastic surgeon, recalling his work to a cop, calls Robert’s face “as nasty a wad of tissue as I’ve ever seen.”
It’s no wonder this guy has some issues.
A last observation about The Flesh Mask is that, though clean enough for 1950s audiences, there’s an undercurrent of eroticism that Vance manages to maintain even while keeping sex out of the book. It establishes itself firmly during an evening of sorority initiation, to which Robert and a few other semi-drunken athletes are invited:
The idea fascinated Robert. He had visions of girl-rites -- fair young bodies -- madness -- abandon … Julie Hovard … Something clenched in his stomach.
|Paperback edition of Take My Face|
While the event is tame by today’s standards, the girls’ shyness when made to do “whatever the boys want” seems to come off as more erotic than the debauchery that we know would ensue in a present-day version.
Vance was interviewed by Locus about a year before his death, and managed to be both self-deprecating and revelatory about his writing skill:
I think that sums it all up pretty nicely.
This is my first time joining in on the Friday’s Forgotten Books posts begun by Patti Abbott. See her blog for a full list of reviews, and marvel at the names when you see who’s participating -- a bunch of mystery writers are in on the shenanigans.