Skin and Bones
by Tom Bale
Published by Preface/Random House UK
432 pages, 2009
Not in My Back Yard
Reviewed by Jim Winter
It starts off quietly enough. Julia Trent ventures to the tiny hamlet of Chilton, north of London, to clean out her recently deceased parents’ home. On a quiet January morning, Julia finds herself stalked by a man with a gun. He’s already murdered several people in the village. She runs, hoping to get away, and is saved by Philip Walker, the hamlet’s anti-development crusader. Walker’s been shot already, but he stares down the killer, a local man named Carl Forester, known for being a bit mental as it is. Walker threatens Forester and is shot again, this time fatally. Just when Julie thinks all is lost, a man in a motorcycle helmet arrives. She’s saved.
Or so she thinks. But the motorcycle man takes Forester’s life, then turns his gun on Julia, who is hiding in a tree. When she falls, he leaves her for dead and flees.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, Julia’s story about a second killer is discounted -- she was badly injured, after all, and presumably confused. It’s assumed that Forester committed his deadly deeds and then turned his weapon on himself. However, Craig Walker, Philip’s son, knows differently.
It’s already been a bad time for Craig. Not only has his father been murdered, but he’s discovered that his wife has been cheating on him. He approaches Julia with what he has learned about the so-called Chilton Massacre. He’s certain there was a second slayer and suspects she knows more about it than she’s saying. He also suspects that local developer George Matheson had some hand in the carnage. After all, it was Matheson whom his father opposed vigorously.
Complicating matters is Matheson’s connection to the crime. Forester, one of Matheson’s ex-employees, began his killing spree by slaughtering the family that managed Matheson’s rural estate. As Matheson contemplates trying again to redevelop the Sussex village, he is frustrated by his nephew Toby’s gambling debts, interference from a man named James Vilner, and the shadowy presence of a strange investor from Trinidad named Kendrick. Oh, and all the while, Matheson’s wife, Vanessa, is dying of cancer.
Skin and Bones presents nothing as obvious. British novelist Tom Bale (the pseudonym of David Harrison, author of 2006’s Sins of the Father) writes several scenes from the killer’s point of view, revealing in them text conversations between him and a person known only as “Decipio.” Scenes with anonymous central characters can often be nerve-grating, but Bale handles them quite well. Suspicions surrounding both the second killer and Decipio’s identity fall on at least four different characters. Ratcheting up the suspense here is George Matheson, who appears to know less and less as the story unfolds. By the end of this novel, it’s apparent that all of the major characters are pawns -- some of them unwittingly manipulated by each other.
Julia Trent serves as the star of this thriller. Bale focuses largely on her, and the plot unfolds around Julia more than any other player. She’s strong, but she’s exhausted. Shot at the beginning of the book, she is thereafter emotionally drained by Craig Walker’s need to hunt for the truth as well as by unwanted attention from someone she assumes is Matheson. Developer Matheson, for his part, is equally a malevolent presence and an unwitting participant in this yarn, unaware of both investor Kendrick’s plans to ruin him and nephew Toby’s reckless attempts to keep himself in his uncle’s business. Furthermore, Matheson is placed under the microscope by none other than his wife, Vanessa. Vanessa is like Julia, tough and determined to stay alive as long as possible. However, while Julia is striving to get her life back to normal, Vanessa learns during her first appearance that her battle with cancer has already been lost. That does not stop her, though, from influencing events to her own advantage.
What truly sells Skin and Bones is Bale’s almost cinematic storytelling style, along the lines of what Lee Child does with his Jack Reacher series. Bale’s description of the Chilton Massacre is vivid in every detail, and it successfully places the horror of the random violence against the backdrop of an idyllic rural village. Skin and Bones reads fast, moves fast, yet doesn’t rush things. And even its ending leaves plenty of unanswered questions.
Well, that’s what sells the next book, right? | February 2009
Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and former comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s an occasional contributor to Crimespree and frequent contributor to both The Rap Sheet and the comedy podcast The Awful Show. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Spinetingler Magazine and Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Edged in Blue.