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ORIGINAL SKIN
by David Mark
Blue Rider Press, May 2013
427 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 0399158650


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Aector McAvoy, a gentle giant of a detective sergeant in the Hull Serious and Organized Crime unit, is caught up in the investigation of some unusually cruel drug-world murders as the marijuana trade in Hull is taken over by persons unknown, using a display of violence to make their power brutally known. But there's another case that insinuates itself into his attention, the death of a young man who has a peacock tattoo and unconventional erotic tastes. Everyone else seems satisfied is a suicide, but it won't let him alone. Nor is Suzie, the young man's friend, convinced he hanged himself. As she drifts along, unsure what to do, it becomes clear that she, too, is in danger.

It's hard to describe just what makes this book so rich and rewarding. The plot is certainly twisty enough, with the police entangled in a complex drug investigation at the same time that a brutal murderer stalks Suzie, who doesn't know what she is up against - but knows too much for her own good. The characters are beautifully rendered in all their complexity. Suzie, like her murdered friend, is drawn to a clandestine sexual scene in which ordinary people with unusual fetishes gather for scenes of erotic make believe. Though it sounds both sensational and squalid, one of the signs that Mark is an unusually fine writer is that Suzie is a fully human, complicated, and beguiling character whose emotional motivation is entirely believable. (The fact that some the participants in the erotic scenes are perfectly ordinary people with an unconventional hobby strikes a note that is both comic and peculiarly plausible.)

The police team, including the imposingly large, socially awkward, and deeply kind McAvoy, his brash boss Trish Pharoah, the competitive and scheming Colin Ray, and a handful of other vivid sketches provide the kind of workplace texture that makes a good police procedural a contemporary variation on the human comedy. There are other richly-developed characters, including local political figures. Though the loving relationship between Aector and his Roma wife Roisin is tested (quite literally), there is still a lot that we don't know about what brought them together and keeps them so close, but that mystery needn't be too easily solved; there is room in the future for that story to unfold. The city of Hull itself, a once-proud city with a brave fishing fleet, now reduced to a shadow of itself, is described with fondness and frustration all rendered in gorgeous prose and a beautifully-textured, cleverly layered narrative of uncommon grace and intelligence.

Mark's first novel, THE DARK WINTER, was a promising debut. This second entry in the series is proof it was no accident. With ORIGINAL SKIN, David Mark secures a place at the forefront of intricately-plotted, beautifully composed, and inventive British crime fiction.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, May 2013

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