Friday, June 22, 2007

SHIFTING SKIN by Chris Simms

Hodmandod Major is now a resident of Manchester city centre. Immediately outside the entrance to his apartment is the Hilton Hotel. This is an unsettling structure since it is top-heavy and asymmetric and must be one of the highest buildings in the area. It looks so unstable that you'd expect a decently-sized sneeze to topple it. I think it has won an award and it is certainly very striking. It is part of the recently developed brown site of Manchester centre. Old buildings from the industrial revolution are being demolished to be replaced by even denser housing: large blocks of apartments each with bedroom, living room and bathroom. It is like a collection of insect cells - each one designed and furnished for single occupancy because this is how we apparently want to live these days, well at least most of us - on our own.

Also near Hodmandod Major's place of residence are remnants of older Manchester: canals in partly landscaped gardens, great bridges transporting railways, old pubs on street corners and new clubs in old factory buildings. Even the names of the streets evoke earlier times: Canal Street, Minshull Street, and Whitworth Street. These are the streets I used to hurry past when I worked at the university. By day they are dirty and dingy; in the night they become seedy and dangerous. And it is this area of Manchester that is the setting of Chris Simms's exciting crime novel SHIFTING SKIN. Chris Simms will be talking about his book at the reading week holiday next month, so I thought I would take a look.


Exfoliation is the theme of the novel - or at least desribes the book's major crime. 'Killing them wasn't enough' declares the words on the cover and indeed the corpses in SHIFTING SKIN are laid utterly bare. Their skins are 'shifted' to reveal the muscles and tissues beneath. It is a sickening act and one which detective inspector Jon Spicer and his newly appointed assistant, detective sergeant Rick Saville, are soon obsessively investigating.

But the detective work is not confined to the police in this novel. An interesting parallel plot (too important to be called a sub-plot, I think) involves accidental amateur sleuth Fiona who inadvertently overhears a crime and finds herself drawn to investigate it - as an exorcism for events that haunt her in her past and present life.

The writing is direct and accessible. Each line is clear and the story flows easily. Very soon it absorbed me and I was happily enticed along to the end to find out 'whodunnit'. It was not at all obvious. The red herrings were plausible and and the characterisation excellent.

For instance one of my favourite characters had just a cameo appearance (with a brief follow-up) but she was memorable. This is how she is introduced:

"In the DJ box was a tall figure with a hairdo like Marge Simpson's. She was wearing a satin dress covered in what looked to Jon like a collection of luminous pong-pong balls. As he and Rick made their way round the edge of the dance floor the song came to an end. But rather than another starting up, a beam of light swung across the room and settled on Jon.

Shielding his eyes, he squinted at the DJ box, the figure now barely visible in the spotlight's glare. 'Fuck me, this one's new to town.'

...When he reached the reached the bar, Rick grinned at him and said, 'That was Miss Tonguelash.'

Although I've never known a Miss Tonguelash, I feel that I do now and SHIFTING SKIN is stuffed full of people I now feel I know and would like to meet again. It is Manchester at night and it is worryingly close to the Manchester I used to know by day. SHIFTING SKIN, it seems to me is not only a crime novel but also a portrait of a city, or at least a part of a city. It goes underneath, it shifts this skin too, and reveals the shallow and tragic preoccupations of its citizens. It is edgy, grim and desperate.

It concerns me a little that Hodmandod Major is living in the middle of it right now but he seems to be coping all right. In fact he seems to thrive. Alongside the tragedy there is also the hope and excitement of a large dynamic city and SHIFTING SKIN shows this too. Excellent stuff.

Additional Note: The perceptive Crime Fiction Reader has also reviewed one Chris Simms's novels - BETWEEN THE WHITE LINES here. Please go and take a look!
Link

4 Comments:

Blogger Jan said...

As you know,Clare, my eldest son was at Uni in M/ch; at one point, he worked at the till in an overnight garage....
his stories were amazing but he was kind enough not to impart them till he'd quit the job!

Sat Jun 23, 12:09:00 pm  
Blogger chiefbiscuit said...

I'm reading a murder mystery at the moment. I have always enjoyed suspense as a reading choice. Thanks for the splendid review - I will make a point of seeking this book out. I know so well that mother-mixture of fret and pride.

Sat Jun 23, 12:16:00 pm  
Anonymous crimeficreader said...

Good to read your thoughts on Shifting Skin, Clare, it's a novel I hope to catch up on, sooner or later, having read Simms's debut (Outside the White Lines) recently.

Crime fiction is argued by many to be a mirror to contemporary society, not only now but historically too. I've even heard Dickens mentioned as fulfilling this act in his time. But crime arises from the ills of society, from the insecurities of its participants, in whatever timeframe; so it's not hard to accept that the mirror is present in a good crime novel. Perhaps some of today's crime novels will also eventually become classics, long after our own demise.

Chris Simms is original and proved it with "Outside the White Lines" for me, if I may be so bold as to link to my thoughts:
http://itsacrime.typepad.com/its_a_crime_or_a_mystery/2007/04/outside_the_whi.html

After your comments on a later novel of his, I really do feel I have to read more. And soon.

Sat Jun 23, 07:37:00 pm  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Good review, Clare. Will add the book to my list.
We are about to have a new colleague called Chris Simms. I wonder if it is the same person?
I'll let you know.

Sat Jun 23, 09:00:00 pm  

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