Jacob M. Appel explains the title of his mystery novel, The Mask of Sanity, by crediting psychiatrist and psychopathy pioneer Hervey Cleckley, who used the phrase as the title of his 1941 book. It referred to people who “at their cores proved incapable of feeling empathy or compassion for their fellow human beings,” writes Appel.
Appel is a physician, attorney, and bioethicist who has written six books of short fiction, two previous novels, and a collection of essays among his numerous publications. He teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. I previously reviewed his short story collection, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, and was curious to see just what he’d do with a novel of suspense.
The protagonist of The Mask of Sanity is Dr. Jeremy Balint, a successful cardiologist, upstanding citizen and family man who nevertheless fits perfectly into Appel’s definition of psychopath. We don’t get the first hint of Balint’s personality problem until the last quarter of the book, so I was left wondering why, as an adult, he shows disregard for an animal’s life and moves on to two-legged creatures.
However, we do know right away who the target victim is: “[ . . . ] his hatred for Warren Sugarman transcended all moral barriers.” Sugarman is a fellow surgeon, and Balint accidentally discovers an affair between his own wife Amanda and Sugarman. In most marriages, this would not be cause for murder, yet, the more I learned about Sugarman, the more I hoped Balint would succeed with his plan.
Once discovering his wife’s secret, Balint decides to carry on as usual: “He was having sex with Amanda in order to lull her into a false sense of security, to ensure that nobody suspected him of a motive for murdering her lover.”
Along the way to deciding when, where, and how to commit murder, he interacts with Sugarman’s ex-wife Gloria and their unlikeable son Davey, the nosy and creepy neighbor Bonnie who appears suspicious of Balint, and a nervous neighbor Sally whose daughter’s accident brings him troubles. There’s also Rabbi Steinhoff, whose motivations have a dual purpose.
Our main character continues to get ethics awards, promotions, and becomes the radio voice for Project Cain, which seeks to pair Jewish women volunteers to mothers with possible trouble-prone kids while the mothers work minimum wage jobs. Appel’s keen sense of humor isn’t lacking in this book, as when he suggests to the rabbi, “Why not just have the volunteers work at Walmart? [ . . . ] You could ask your enthusiastic housewives to do the menial work at Walmart or McDonald’s or wherever, freeing up the biological mothers to spend time with their kids.”
Then, as fate or fiction would have it, one of Balint’s patients has a beautiful 25-year-old daughter named Delilah who actually bakes “anatomically correct” heart shaped cookies, red sprinkles marking “the oxygenated blood of arteries,” blue sprinkles indicating veins.
When Balint travels outside the city to buy thirty-two, two-foot long strands of green ribbon, I had to wonder what this guy was up to. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. What better way to cover up one man’s murder than to commit several. So begins his passage into becoming a serial killer. Here the story picks up with astonishing speed.
“The real obstacle, he realized, was fear. Killing strangers seemed fundamentally different from killing someone whom he knew well….” He voices fear he might “freeze up at the last instant,” or that Sugarman “might offer something during those final seconds to knock him off his guard.”
But he has no fear of being caught. Writes Appel:
As much as he hated to admit it, he actually enjoyed following the efforts of Chief Putnam and Detective Mazzotta as they tried to reassure the public that they had the situation under control—when anyone with half a brain realized that they didn’t.
By this time the killer has been pegged the “Emerald Choker.”
But Balint’s personality is perfectly summed up after one of the killings, “On the drive home [ . . . ] he braced himself to feel anxious and unsettled. In reality he experienced a sense of calm that he hadn’t enjoyed in months.”
I do love a good, suspense filled mystery, and I wasn’t disappointed in this one. Appel nails it with The Mask of Sanity, to be released in March.