Skin Deep

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday July 1, 2008

A beautiful woman is killed, strangled with her own stockings and posed to look as though she died accidentally and alone while engaged in a solo sex act; it's a case that the Boston police are about to file and forget when Detective Steve Markarian notices tiny, but telling, details that don't add up.

Over the objections of his partner, an angry man named Neil, Markarian takes the investigation back to square one and starts over, this time with an eye to a killer having been on the scene. It's not long before a suspect turns up, a college professor of literature whose online feedback ranges from raves to warnings that the man is a "perv."

But Markarian isn't so sure that the professor is their man. For one thing, Neil is behaving in such a sloppy, erratic manner that Markarian isn't sure Neil didn't do the job himself, especially when it comes to light that Neil and the victim had a tempestuous relationship shortly before her death.

But even more unsettling: Markarian, who is spooked by the victim's resemblance to his own estranged wife, fears that there may be a suspect even closer at hand: himself. There's a booze-and-antidepressant-fueled blackout in Markarian's memory for the night of the murder, and even as he investigates Neil for not fessing up about his connection to the victim, Markarian worries that his own romantic interest in her might place him in a suspicious position... not to mention the victim being a look-alike for his wife. Could Markarian really be angry enough with his wife to want to kill her? Could he really have been so far under the influence that he carried out his rage against someone who happens to have looked like her?

As for Markarian's wife, Dana, she seems to be preparing herself for a life of new singledom, looking for a new job and a new, fresher face to help her land it. When Dana falls into the orbit of a brilliant, pioneering plastic surgeon named Aaron Monks, one of Boston's most eligible bachelors and a man who seems to have more than a professional interest in a thrilled and flattered Dana.

Skin Deep follows up on Braver's previous thrillers Elixir, Gray Matter, and Flashback with a new emphasis: where the other books explored new bio-medical breakthroughs and the ethical costs and questions associated with them, Skin Deep takes a long, piercing look at a society that values youth and physical beauty above everything else, and the measures that people who feel hindered by their looks will resort to in order to have a shot at the things they want.

Braver doesn't condemn the industry of plastic surgery; he doesn't need to. As Monks explains in a couple of passages, people who get surgery to change their appearance often feel better about themselves and blossom personality and professionally, liberated from a source of insecurity or anxiety like a deformity or even a feature that seems too pronounced, or too weak, for their faces. The very fact of such life-changing effects is chilling to contemplate, because it illustrates the depth and universality which which physical beauty has been elevated to prime importance.

But Braver also examines another kind of deformity: the deep psychological scarring that comes with childhood abuse. In a series of flashbacks, we start to see the genesis of what might become either a deep-seated fear of family commitment... or the seeds of a psychosis that can only be calmed, temporarily, by way of an elaborate murder ritual. Neither we, nor Lt. Markarian, are sure until the final pages just how those flashbacks and blank hours will fit into the puzzle, and the answers, when they come, will provoke gasps. (On at least three occasions, I nearly dropped the book with shock: just when you think this diabolically plotted story can't hold another jolt, Braver delivers another eye-popping twist.)

Braver has fun in the book referring to his earlier works, including books he wrote under his own name, Gary Goshgarian. Fans of Braver (and Goshgarian) will have fun seeing what this ever-meticulous storyteller has come up with in his new mystery, and the fact that Braver's writing is as strong and as stylistically well-honed as ever adds to the sense of delight (and of foreboding: poor prose can turn even a brilliantly plotted story into pulpy trash, and Braver uses his skill as a wordsmith to boost the tension and the eventual payoff).

Fans of medical thrillers, get ready to dive in: your summer reading is almost here. Skin Deep will be released on July 8.

Publisher: Forge Books. Publication Date: July 8, 2008. Pages: 448. Price: $25.95. Format: Hardcover Original. ISBN-13: 978-0-765-309-754

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.