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Book World reviews Mo Hayder's 'Skin'

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By Patrick Anderson
Saturday, January 2, 2010

SKIN

By Mo Hayder

Grove. 382 pp. $22

Too little action is not the usual problem in popular fiction; the problem is too much. Not wanting to lose the impatient reader, writers toss in everything but the kitchen sink. That is more or less what happens in Mo Hayder's "Skin," which kept me baffled much of the way.

The novel is set in and around Bristol, England, and features Detective Inspector Jack Caffery and police Sgt. Phoebe (Flea) Marley, who were introduced in Hayder's earlier novel "Ritual." There is a hint of sexual attraction between the two, although Caffery claims to have sworn off women after several failed relationships. The first time Caffery and Marley meet in this novel, we're told that he "glanced at her breasts," whereupon this exchange follows:

"I saw that."

"Couldn't help myself. Sorry."

"You're my senior officer. You're not supposed to look at me like that." It turns out that Marley was just having fun: "She liked the way Caffery had looked at her breasts. As if the T-shirt wasn't even there." There isn't much time for this sort of banter, however, because a bewildering number of bodies starts piling up and demanding our heroes' full attention.

Marley is a police diver, and in an opening scene we see her in a flooded limestone quarry, diving deeper than she's supposed to, not finding a corpse but glimpsing something dark, the size of a big turtle, but with human feet. Both she and Caffery, it seems, think there is a "Tokoloshe" in the area, a creature out of African witchcraft.

We see Caffery watching a video of a man being decapitated with a hacksaw, apparently by people who can sell the head for medicinal uses. We accompany Caffery as he talks with a mysterious figure called the Walking Man, who may or may not be human. We learn that a young woman named Misty Kitson is missing. Two other young women are found dead, apparent suicides. Soon, however, Caffery suspects that both were murdered.

Marley has troubles closer to home. One day she notices a smell in the back of her car, opens the trunk and finds Kitson's body. It seems that Marley's worthless brother, having borrowed her car, accidentally ran down Kitson and inexplicably brought the corpse home. Against her better judgment, Marley decides to help her brother avoid punishment. Her reward: Her brother and his nasty wife concoct a story that will put the blame on Marley. Trying to prove her innocence, Marley encounters a woman who crusades to protect wildlife from motorists and is soon blackmailing the bedeviled police diver.

Meanwhile, Caffery is investigating the possible murder victims. One of them left her husband, collected sex toys and seems to have been blackmailing someone before her death. Caffery's inquiries about another victim, a nurse, take him closer to the serial killer he believes to be at large, and when he finally confronts the killer, "Skin" becomes focused and suspenseful.

But even then we have a letdown. Caffery gets out of a tight spot from which there is no obvious escape -- not due to his own cleverness but by something close to a miracle. One can only hope that further outings by Caffery and Marley will be less murky and far-fetched than this one.

Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.


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