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16-the-death-mask

“Half of Collinsport thinks that I caused the breakup between you two.  They talked, they gossiped, people didn’t trust me with their business anymore…my reputation was shot, thanks to your little games.

I had to leave my own hometown to start over again.  You made me lie to Carolyn, spy on my friends…even attempt murder while under your spell.  I almost died because of you.”

“Are you finished?”

“I guess that about covers it…”

Attorney Anthony Peterson has reinvented himself since his last appearance at Collinwood.  Effectively driven out of town and into a new profession as a private investigator, he finds himself reluctantly invited to a society party thrown by his current employer.

Unfortunately, there’s more in play here than may at first seem apparent, and a very unexpected guest in attendance.  One who threatens to upend what small measure of security the man has rebuilt for himself…

“Well, I must say, you’re looking good, Tony.  Just as handsome as ever…life away from Collinsport must agree with you.”
“(exasperated huff) You’re unbelievable…”
“Would you like a cigarette?”
“No thanks, I gave it up.  Seems I developed a strange aversion to cigarette lighters.”

In the style of the earlier Dark Shadows offerings, this is more of a two person audiobook style performance than what would eventually morph into more of a full cast audio drama.  Even so, Lacy and Parker already evince the strong rapport that would eventually mark last month’s The Devil Cat (where I first discovered this wonderful little ongoing double act of theirs).

Hearkening back to a tradition formed at the turn of the century, author Mark Thomas Passmore (of…well, The Devil Cat) hits all the right marks of the classic locked door, drawing room, old dark house style of mystery thriller that took the theater world, and later that of early ‘talkie’ cinema of the 1920’s and early ’30s by storm.

Working off the template set by such authors as Agatha Christie (And Then There Were None) and Earl Derr Biggers (Seven Keys to Baldpate), Passmore takes a reasonably minor if likeable character and, rather surprisingly, his tormentor and manipulator, and throws them straight into the midst of this seemingly incongruous setting, tapping into the sophisticated romantic comedy inherent to the best celluloid chestnuts 1930’s and 40’s cinema had to offer.  In point of fact, the mystery itself becomes mere trappings for the detectives themselves, a flimsy if welcome backdrop to the central characters and their playful bantering.

It’s a strange mix on paper, but pure joy in performance, particularly with two seasoned leads able to evince the sort of chemistry today’s Hollywood is too lowbrow and abjectly moronic to be capable of even dreaming of replicating.

Sure, some enterprising soul or other does make the odd attempt on occasion.  But with today’s stars, today’s audiences, today’s zeitgeist?  You can throw as much glitter on it as you like, but the old adage still holds true: it’s kind of hard to polish a turd.

And in that light?  The sort of dynamic being expressed here and the general milieu it seeks to reinvent become all the more notable by comparison.

Even beyond its period-authentic evocativeness, Passmore’s script covers all the necessary bases, most particularly providing less seasoned Dark Shadows fans with the necessary teleseries-era backstory of the main protagonists’ previous relationship.  Moreover, the author takes things a step further than just giving an appropriate nod to continuity by actually making an effort towards filling in some logical gaps and plotholes along the way, which he does with both admirable insight and a strong sense of realism as to the sort of consequences Cassandra’s actions would have inflicted on Tony, were the whole affair more grounded in the real world than the often outre milieu Collinsport so deftly provided to a generation of viewers (and indeed, those like myself who’d discovered it in later reruns and video iterations).

In effect, where Tony Peterson more or less disappeared, dropped by the wayside and forgotten as characters and plot points were so often wont to do in the multi-scripter, multi-director, incredibly lengthy and convoluted world of the soaps, Passmore picks up the pieces and finally completes the unfinished puzzle left to us by Dan Curtis, Sam Hall and all the others involved on the creative back end of the show.  It’s a masterful job, and seamlessly integrated into the story proper.

“If you want to question everybody, don’t you think you should account for everyone?…you’ve forgotten about the cook and the kitchen staff.  Or are they exempt from being suspects?”
“(exasperated sigh) Why don’t you mind your own business?”
“All I’m trying to do is help, it seems to me you need some.”
“I can handle this on my own.  You don’t know the first thing about investigating a crime.  I’m a lawyer, you’re a witch.  Why don’t you just stick to what you know?”
“Well, you’ve already made a mistake, allowing them to be alone together…”
“Do you enjoy interfering in my life?”

Beyond some absolutely wonderful classic Hollywood screwball comedy banter and reluctantly romantic interplay between our two leads, Lacy gets to put on his best Sidney Greenstreet as the eccentric confederate millionaire Harrison Pierce, and even taps into hoary “snotty English butler” motifs with his amusing take on the jowly-cheeked Willoughby.

“Cassandra was just as I remembered her…poised, with confidence and style that was all woman.  She smiled knowingly, her eyes amused.  Her eyes… large, blue… eyes that commanded.  Eyes that a man’s soul could be lost in.  As mine had once been.  And I hated her for it.”

Parker, for her part, plays the part of the bemusedly worldly ingenue to the hilt, clearly enjoying playing with Peterson like a cat batting around its prey; messing with the man for the sheer amusement of watching him get flustered and devolve into flurries of pure exasperation.  And yet…there are strong undertones that there may be something more than pure malice, or even capriciousness at work here.

“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Oh, I suspect things with you will be far more interesting.”
“Why are you here?”
“Well, offhand, I’d say it was to keep you out of trouble.”
“You know, you’re an infuriating woman.”
“I was beginning to think you hadn’t noticed.”
“What?”
“That I’m a woman…”

Even with an expected focus on Tony’s natural anger towards Cassandra for her televised manipulations of him during the original run way back in the heady days of 1968, listeners can practically hear the sparks flying between the two.  Sure, they play up the rivalry bit to the hilt.  But the opposite of attraction has never been hate, but indifference.  Even early on, savvier and more experienced listeners can see all the signs that there’s something more to this than either of them are letting on.  Parker has seldom been so coy, evincing an often sexually charged teasing so pronounced you can practically see those large blue eyes twinkling.  In the end, how could Peterson possibly resist?

“A hunch?  You risked my life on a hunch?”
“Well, he had to be somewhere…”
“A hunch?!?
“You’re still welcome…”

I said it here and in my review of The Devil Cat, but this was an absolutely delightful story invention on the part of Big Finish, and perhaps more to the point, Passmore himself, who appears to have helmed all five stories involving the duo.  Moreover, it would appear that their ongoing storyline provides one of the few such without being marked by (or at least delaying until the denouement of The Devil Cat) the traditionally cruel endings of the Big Finish iteration of Dark Shadows.  And honestly, if the rest of these tales live up to the precedent set here and the antecedent finale of the Devil Cat?  I feel very much in safe hands.

As a lifelong fan of this sort of romantic comedy, particularly when melded so deftly with the mystery and horror genres I tend to feel most at home within, allow me to assure the reader that I will with certainty be tackling each of the remaining adventures of Cassandra Collins and Tony Peterson in due course.

In fact, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

 

http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/the-death-mask-151

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