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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Skin Deep by Gary Braver is Annoying

In Skin Deep we are thrown immediately into the investigation of a killing that is made to look a bit like a suicide - "autoerotica gone bad." Lieutenant Detective Steve Markarian, in charge of the investigation, counters the assessment of his partner Sargent Neill French by pointing out the clues that make clear that it is a homicide. This is just the beginning of differences of opinion that lead to friction between the two investigators throughout the book. It isn't long before it's clear that a serial killer is at work and the present case is only the most recent of a many. In each, the victim has a similar appearance and the method used to kill the victims is the same. But the investigators struggle to find the link that will break the case.

Complicating the case is the fact that both Markarian and French knew the victim, although both in different circumstances. In reality, shouldn't they both have been removed from the case? Yes, but both choose not to do so and do not report this to their superior officer. Further complicating the case: Markarian, a heavy drinker and long time user of the medication Ativan, had suffered a blackout during the time of the victim's death. Circumstantial evidence that he uncovers makes him think he is in fact the murderer. Yet he hopes fervently that it's not true and keeps investigating without a word to anyone.

I really loved Braver's Flashback, so I was truly looking forward to this story. But while the book was well written, and contained excellent pacing, I felt it was just plain annoying. To explain why I felt this way, I will have to continue with the assumption that you have read the book.


It was annoying because the author deliberately sets about to mislead the reader as to the killer's identity. Hey! I know, that's what mystery authors are supposed to do. Well, there are ways that make sense and there are ways the are... well, annoying and... unfair.

You have to keep in mind that the hype about the book rather sets the stage:
  • The title is Skin Deep.
  • Picture on the cover: a scalpel (or something like that) preparing to cut skin.
  • Testimonial on book #1: "An outstanding medical thriller..."
  • Testimonial on book #2: "medical terror...that will make you question your own reflection in the mirror"
  • Testimonial on book #3: "Put off that tummy tuck until you read Gary Braver's new chiller Skin Deep. ...the latest from this medical mystery master..."
See what I mean? Now if you read Braver's other books, you have already encountered wacko scientists and members of the medical community that want to make you smarter and others that want to keep you young forever, or at least stop senility. So, when I picked up this book, I already knew it would revolve around plastic surgery, and most likely, but not necessarily, a doctor, a plastic surgeon, would be at the root of the thriller.

Side Note: The other Braver books, where there was murder, it was pragmatic - in the name of research, or ooops! sorry, didn't know that would happen. There was a bit of a message, something to think about in terms of the science. On the other hand, this book is a straight serial killer book. There was a message intended, but it is weakly delivered.

OK, so I am already expecting there will be an evil plastic surgeon, which does in fact take place, although this is not confirmed until chapter 76 (out of 96). Now there are only a handful of characters that get much attention as suspects. But the author goes out of his way to make us think the suspect is in fact Lt Markarian. This is done by a series of chapters that flashback to the life of a boy who lives in a very dysfunctional home. The boy is sexually seduced by the step-mother, ignored by the father who is often away from home travelling for his job, and the victim of his mothers neurotic narcissistic behaviors. All the while, there are clues and situations that are deliberately meant to show us that the adult Markmarian and the unknown male child in the flashbacks are one and the same.

The idea that Markarian's wife was seriously considering plastic surgery arises in chapter 4 and then 8; he and she first meet the plastic surgeon in chapter 15. But the first of the series of flashbacks happen prior to even hearing about the surgeon, in chapter 5. The common bond between the Markarian and the unknown abused boy is headaches. Each time a flashback chapter arises, it immediate follows a chapter where the focus is on Markarian. The tie between the two is strengthened when the author causes Markarian to have a running dialog with himself, almost making it appeare as though Markarian is mentally disturbed.

Nevertheless, the whole time I am saying - What is all this about?... I know that the bad guy is going to be this doctor that is slowly becoming important to the story as Markarian's wife schedules plastic surgery with him.

I guess what I am saying is that as red herrings go, this was just to convoluted. Confusing me? Yes. Putting me off the track about the real threat in the book? Not at all.

No, there was none of the subtlety that made Flashback, and to a slightly lesser degree the other Braver medical thrillers, such great stories. Gary, even though I was annoyed, I'm still a fan.

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