Book Review: The Skin Collector

Major spoilers. Only read, if you’ve read it!

My copy of the book with those frustrating stickers uglying up the cover.

So, I have to start this review admitting to some embarrassment. Earlier this year, I did a review of The Midnight Lock, a return to one of my favorite authors, Jefferey Deaver; emphasis mine. That’s right. I said Deaver was one of my favorite authors and then spelled his first name, Jeffery, wrong. The reason I even noticed it was because I was reading the jacket on his 2014 novel, The Skin Collector, and the plot struck me as familiar. When I looked through my blog to see if I’d reviewed it before (and thus, read it before), I saw my mistake earlier this year. In any event, I hadn’t read the book yet, and started my second Deaver novel of the year last night. I have to say, it was much better than The Midnight Lock, which I still liked, but it didn’t feel like the Deaver I remembered: This one, another Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs story, did.

Much like Midnight Lock, the premise of, The Skin Collector, which a fan of Deaver might recognize that it seems eerily similar to his break-out hit-turned-film, The Bone Collector, probably goes like this: Deaver falls down a rabbit hole of some niche hobby, and makes that a serial killer’s trademark. In the Bone Collector, it was bones; in Midnight Lock it was locks, and in Skin Collector, it’s tattoos. But unlike the Midnight Lock, where I felt like that impetus seemed too obvious — as if Deaver was interjecting exposition from what he’d learned about locks into the book —, it felt more organic here, and importantly, wasn’t even close to the whole story. In fact, it was a red herring.

Billy Haven is a very talented tattoo artist, and he terrorizes New York City not only by utilizing its extensive underground tunneling system to pull victims into those spaces, scaring people from even going into their basements, but he also is using poison as the “ink” in his tattoos, which themselves are mysterious clues for investigators, Rhyme, Sachs, and the rest of the usual gang. The underground element was creepy, but the poison aspect is what always give me the heebie-jeebies. The idea that you could leave an unseen hypodermic needle as “evidence” to be pricked into the skin and have a lethal toxin enter your blood stream … or just to be unwittingly killed by poison at all. The unseen makes for a far more terrifying and scary prospect than a serial killer who comes at you straight ahead with a gun or a knife or something “traditional.”

What I love, love about Deaver’s books with Lincoln Rhyme, Deaver’s famous criminal forensics guru who became a quadriplegic when investigating a crime, and his partner in crime (and personally!), Amelia Sachs, who is a detective and a bit of a protégé of his in forensics, is that Deaver writes both sides so smartly. It’s like watching an NBA game between two evenly matched, highly skilled teams; those kind of games where there are three dozen lead changes and the game goes down to literally the last seconds. Rhyme and Sachs are always trying to anticipate what the serial doer will do, and the killer is trying to anticipate what they will anticipate. To use another analogy, it’s a life-and-death chess match. In fact, Haven has specifically studied Rhyme and Sachs to stay ahead of the “anticipator.”

In fact, I couldn’t help but appreciate that Deaver was giving us a classic “cat-and-mouse” crime story, when the “mouse” in this scenario was the killer who went by the media moniker “Underground Man” because of using the tunnels. Mice. Tunnels. I should also note, Haven had a centipede tattoo on his arm, and there were a lot of allusions to insects and how invasive they can be. That also grossed me out and make my skin crawl.

So, Deaver’s one-upmanship between Lincoln and Haven created a page-turning, compelling read because Deaver kept finding a way for the back-and-forth “lead changes” to keep happening, where it seems like Lincoln and Amelia finally caught Haven, or Haven finally had them. Meanwhile, Deaver also introduced side plots that one had to assume would factor into the main plot. First, Amelia was dealing with her 19-year-old de facto baby sister, Pamela, who Amelia and Lincoln rescued from a radical, militia mother. Pamela wants to go gallivanting the world, and drop out of school to do it, with her new boyfriend, Seth. And Pamela is mad that Amelia is scoffing at such a plan and treating her like her stand-in mother.

Meanwhile, Lincoln also is dealing with the seeming death of the Watchmaker, a brilliant killer who, following the Deaver formula, parlayed an obsession with watches into serial killing. Lincoln enlists his rookie cop, Ron Pulaski, to go undercover at the Watchmaker’s “funeral” to see if he has any known associates carrying on his work.

Aside from making the obvious point in my head that eventually these two side plots would converge with the main plot, I also couldn’t help but notice that two very subtle details were dropped along the way by Deaver, particularly in the chapters dealing with Haven’s point-of-view: a.) Haven was mindful of time and his watch!; and b.) Haven seemed to have an appreciation? a respect? for white supremacy (but again, it was quite subtle asides).

What I really loved about this book, even more than how expertly logical — and without any nits for me to pick regarding plot points — the cat-and-mouse game was, was that the usual, if interesting, psychotic serial killer story was a complete red herring! That was refreshing. Instead, it turned out Haven, and one of his seeming victims at the beginning of the novel, along with that victim’s family, were part of a white supremacist militia, the American Families First Council based in Illinois, and they planned to put botulinum (apparently, one of the most dangerous toxins there is) into the New York City water supply and scapegoat leftists for it to cause a war of sorts, along with mass death and destruction. And there was even a sick twist on why Haven cared so much about skin: Because he’s a racist! He loves white skin! White skin is pure to him! It was called the Rule of Skin by his uncle who was the leader of the AFFC. Haven planned to kill the uncle, and his aunt (who he was sleeping with), and start his own terrorist organization. I loved that reframing of the importance of skin to Haven. (Also, I can’t help but point out how prescient this novel feels with its antagonists eight years later.)

Oh, and the big twist? Seth, Pamela’s boyfriend, was actually … Billy Haven! He met her when they were younger and she was still with her mother’s militia group, and he wanted revenge against Lincoln and Amelia for “brainwashing” her by rescuing her from it all. I thought Seth seemed like a jerk because of the way he acted when he was “attacked” by Haven, but I didn’t suspect that that was a ruse and he was Billy all along. That also closed what I thought was going to be a plot hole: It always seems like the “unsubs” have an easy time of finding where Lincoln’s townhome is and getting at him. Well, Billy did “break-in” to Lincoln’s townhome to spike his scotch, but that made sense because “Seth” was able to get into the townhouse previously with Pamela. Smart, Deaver, smart.

Also! The whole “Underground Man,” what are white supremacist terrorists types sometimes thought of as? Being underground! Smart once again, Deaver. Well-played. I’m impressed! Layers upon layers, just like … skin.

Finally, the Watchmaker subplot? Turns out, the Watchmaker isn’t dead (he faked it), and he was orchestrating the entire white supremacist militia as pawns for his own ends. Which also made sense to me because I thought these Illinois white supremacists were a little too clever for such an orchestrated plot against the New York City water system. But with the Watchmaker playing God behind the scenes, it made sense.

If you like Deaver, then this is Deaver at the full force of his mystery-thriller writing powers. As I said, this is the Deaver I remember from my teens. Cleverness that isn’t being clever for its own sake that it becomes too cute. It just is genuinely clever and a blast to read.

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