Browne, Marshall. (1981). City of Masks. London: Robert Hale.

Kelly, an Australian in the Hong Kong Secret Service, is approached by a Chinese millionaire, Lee, who has received death threats and wants Kelly to investigate. Meanwhile, the readers are aware that a gay international criminal mastermind with a penchant for poisonous spiders, and a man who has already executed a bank heist in Beirut, are preparing something in Hong Kong. The tension mounts as the day named in the death threats and  the execution of the criminal mastermind’s new plot  both approach. The denouement ties these two story lines together showing the death threats to have been real but also a smokescreen for another bank heist so that the police will  concentrate on protecting millionaire Lee, who is presenting a cup at the horse races, and be away from the scene of the crime (a bomb is hidden in the cup). Lee is saved by Kellywho realises that the cup has been booby-trapped just in time to seize it and hurl it away. However, Kelly himself, who has been suffering from chest pains throughout, dies as his plane takes-off on his retirement to Bangkok. And although the criminal mastermind escapes with the loot, he does not escape alive: whilst flying a helicopter to rendezvous with a ship to carry the bullion, he is bitten by one of his poisonous spiders, loses control of the helicopter and dies, crashing the helicopter at sea.

The narrative (organised by a chapter a day covering Monday-Saturday of one week) is convoluted and violent. Conway, the criminal mastermind, has infiltrated both the police force and Lee’s operations. He kills Kelly’s Chinese sidekick at workand  subverts Lee’s personal assistant, Chang,who booby-traps the cup. Chang has been the childhood friend of Lee’s son, but whilst Lee’s son on coming of age has been set up in business by his father, Chang has to take on the servile position of Lee’s assistant. . This is presented as reason for his generally misanthropic character and, with hindsight, motive for his infidelity. Chang is also perceived by Kelly as ‘one of those Chinese who hated foreigners’ [30].

Kelly, already haunted by death (it is not clear whose death but we may suppose a wife and child killed through association with his previous secret service work in Australia), realises early on that his own life and that of his Chinese girlfriend, Mary, are at risk and therefore asks her to move out. Although the idea is that it will be temporary, it becomes evident that it will be forever. Following manslaughter charges of an assailant, Kelly is forced to go away but retains the support of his sidekick Joe Wing. When Wing is killed, Kelly lures the police who murdered him, Smith and Lee (these are Conway’s moles), to a condemned building in Wanchai and murders them in revenge. Kelly therefore becomes a lone-ranger figure in a sort of quasi-western set in the east. He acts according to his own moral code beyond the law.

The first half of the novel in particular presents Hong Kong in gothic terms. The Prologue characterises Hong Kong as a site of violence and criminal activity: ‘Acts of violence, vice, corruption, larceny, all sluiced through the fabric of its life like the slop water in the stinking underground drains.’ (KB)


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