The Skin Collector by Jeffery Deaver (Grand Central, 2014)
Jack the Ripper. The Boston Strangler. The Texas Watchtower Killer. The Zodiac Killer. The Angel of Death. The Butcher. BTK. The police and the press have a long history of dubbing serial killers with names that catch the attention of the public, usually having the effect of instilling greater fear and selling more print media so that folks can get a heart stopping chill thrill.
For Lincoln Rhyme, the protagonist of Jeffery Deaver's series about the brilliant retired captain of the New York police department, who happens to be a quadriplegic, there have been two nicknamed homicidal maniacs up to this point: the Bone Collector and the Watchman. Now Deaver introduces the Skin Collector, who appears to be using the Bone Collector as his role model in committing his heinous crimes.
What makes The Skin Collector such an exciting read is that just when the reader thinks s/he has the story figured out, the tale morphs into a different plot line, then morphs again and again, Deaver always staying one step ahead of even his most avid fan. The Skin Collector is the eleventh in the Rhyme series, and it continues to deliver the nightmarish details on which the lovers of hard core detective stories like to feast, with rapid, graphic, and hard hitting details that make even the biggest fans of gore, blanch.
The novel opens with the first crime. Chloe Moore, a Broadway star wannabe, works as a salesgirl in a semi-chic, Manhattan clothing store. She has to retrieve an item from the basement, a creepy place that she dislikes going. Hearing a leak that could potentially ruin a lot of expensive inventory, Chloe tries to investigate but is distracted by other noises that alarm her. Upon hearing a foot crunch on the concrete, she tells herself to get out of the basement fast. However, Deaver describes the scene, “But before she got out, before she even spun an eighth turn away, he was on her from behind, slamming her head into the wall. He pressed a cloth over her mouth to gag her. She nearly fainted from the shock. A burst of pain blossomed in her neck . . . She nearly puked, seeing the yellowish latex full-head mask, with slots for eyes and mouth and ears, tight and distorting the flesh underneath as if his face had melted. He was in worker's coveralls, some logo on them she couldn't read.” (p.5)
Although Chloe believes that this maniac is intending to rape her, things don't quite go that way. Instead, this man who resembles an insect in many ways, pulls up her blouse slightly and chastely caresses her flesh. He pinches and raises peaks of her skin and releases it to let it ease back into place. The last thing that Chloe hears is the hum of a tattoo machine where the Skin Collector, Billy Haven, imprints her with the words “the second,” surrounded by an intriguing scallop design. Her death is caused by the toxins that the Skin Collector has used in inking his quixotic design, and continues to use in subsequent attacks on other victims, leaving other numerical clues with which he taunts the detectives on the case.
Rhyme's dedicated crew is on hand to assist him in his apartment office/laboratory, as he doles out orders as to whom will perform which duties in trying to solve the case. Amelia Sachs, , who functions as Rhyme's legs on crime scenes, and as his lover in off hours, is a complicated and stunning woman. Due to her life experiences in relationships, she accepts Rhyme's disabilities in exchange for his powerful mind. A former fashion model, Sachs is smart, plagued with debilitating arthritis, and a number of phobias, which challenge her as a detective. But Sachs is gritty and forces herself to tackle the worst of her fears, like inching through an underground tube in the dark in pursuit of an unsub. Deaver reminds us in this novel that Sachs traded romantic interludes with losers for the opportunity to tinker with hot cars, learning how to love and respect motors rather than bipedal assholes. She is an independent and worth complement to Rhyme's cool demeanor.
One of The Skin Collector's greatest strengths is that Deaver worked in details from previous Rhyme novels to remind the reader of what had happened in previous stories. When a series is stretched out over a long period of time, it is often difficult to remember plot lines, characters, and themes from prior works. By having the characters review prior details in their conversations and thoughts, Deaver sets up a framework to help us remember what has come before in the series.
Another interesting detail incorporated into The Skin Collector is the death of Richard Logan while he was serving his time in prison. Logan, one of Rhyme's greatest nemeses, as the Watchmaker, had died in prison, and Rhyme has chosen to send flowers to mark the passing of an adversary worthy of Rhyme's attention. But, Rhyme also sends rookie police officer, incognito, Ron Pulaski, to the funeral home. The former police captain is curious to see who comes to pick up the ashes of the deceased Logan, if that in fact is who the Watchmaker truly is. Ron's experiences at the funeral home take the novel into yet another diversion from the story of the Skin Collector.
Rhyme's team, which assembles frequently in his apartment, consists of loyal characters, all of whom have their flaws, but together perform as a machine which hums when working properly to solve the kinds of crimes that Rhyme solves from his wheelchair. The former detective's vast knowledge of things like the composition of soil and what a sample of it can mean, plants and poisons that can be derived from them, Latin, and great works of literature, all play a role in The Skin Collector. This page turner was captivating from the start and never let down in its intensity and surprises.