Crime Scene: GARY KEMBLE Skin Deep. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm
A paranormal crime thriller with a blokey sensibility, Skin Deep is set in a Brisbane still dealing with the after-effects of many years of Joh rule.
Harry Hendrick is a man of his time and circumstance. A journalist by training, he had managed to sabotage his job potential before he even left university. Since then it seems his life has meandered, gently buffeting him along without any overt desire on his part to take control. A flawed character, he’s nonetheless an engaging sort of bloke, tight with his mates despite occasional exasperation, popular with his colleagues, easy for a reader to connect with and very likeable. Unfortunately he’s not so lucky in love.
When Harry wakes up after his best mate Dave’s bucks’ night with a hangover and a strange symbol tattooed on the back of his neck, it doesn’t seem that out of order. He’s in his newly rented home, with most of his belongings still packed in boxes, and the tattered remnants of the best personal relationship he ever had echoing through his brain, and it seems that he’s prepared to approach this night’s outcome with the same world-weary acceptance of everything else that’s ever happened to him. But when Dave can’t remember the tattooing either, something tells Harry he really should at least try to find out what the symbol means and how it got there.
The story focusses on Harry, but a good supporting cast fleshes out his life, work and the neighbourhood. His friendship with old Fred, a local identity, war veteran and teller of tales, provides an insight into old-fashioned community that is particularly touching, where neighbours and locals support, and are kind to each other. Fred’s role in the story reflects many of the nice aspects of Harry’s character, but he’s also part of the action as well. It doesn’t hurt that Fred’s connections to the military help to find an explanation for some of the tattoo mystery:
‘… That symbol you showed me? It’s from the Middle East. Some sort of magic apparently,’ he said the word slowly – ma-jick – as though trying it out. ‘From Afghanistan, Harry?’
There are other great examples of mateship here – in Harry’s relationship with Dave, and in the way he looks out for those who also look out for him. There’s also something quintessentially Australian about his distrust of would-be politicians, especially in post-Joh Brisbane where there is still a collective twitch at political power, corruption and control.
The story’s somewhat slow to get going, but the pleasure of Skin Deep is the gentle build-up, not relying solely on action, but also on reflection. Fred’s role as sidekick seems natural for an old bloke with a lot of memories of a better past and time on his hands. It’s through Fred and his local contacts that Harry learns about some of the seemingly innocuous things – like the local campaign to save an old water tower that dominates the local landscape from the clutches of developers – which start to accumulate into a more sinister picture. Then there’s something very strange about the place that he’s moved into, something underneath the house that keeps drawing him towards it.
A further complication is the interwoven thread following a group of soldiers in Afghanistan, and that, the water-tower campaign, politics and a local bikie group all eventually become part of the one story, held together by the unexplained tattoo on Harry’s skin. It’s this piling up of elements that just don’t seem right that finally jolts Harry into action.
There’s a strong sense of place throughout this novel, and as stark as the landscape differences between Queensland and Afghanistan are, more keenly obvious are the differences in day-to-day life. In Afghanistan:
Heat shimmered off rocks the colour of dried bones. In the valley below, the bright red and green of the poppies provided stark contrast to the deathly pale landscape. Women, dressed in black, moved between the rows like wraiths. The troopers saw the dust rise from a couple of ks out, watching through binoculars as the armoured vehicles approached the planation.
While in Brisbane:
Harry stood at the altar of the small church in Paddington, looking back out at the family and friends. Suits and sunglasses for the guys. Chiffon and fake tan for the girls … The opening strains of U2’s ‘With or Without You’ piped from the speakers. Dave turned as Ellie walked slowly into the church, holding her dad’s arm.
These contrasts subtly remind the reader of the different lifestyles and pressures. They also help make the reason for the mysterious tattoo more surprising, yet more believable and sobering than it might be if somebody less ‘normal’ became involved in the paranormal.
Whether or not you fully believe all of the aspects of this novel, there is sufficient reality here in the never-ending power and corruption of politics, the brutality of war and the importance of friends, families and local connections to balance out the paranormal, and make it all comfortably part of Harry’s journey.
Gary Kemble Skin Deep Echo Publishing 2015 PB 304pp $29.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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