Verdict: If you’re looking for a thriller that surprises, disturbs, and occasionally rises above the limits of its genre altogether, look no further than THE SKIN ROOM.
Murder is just the tip of the iceberg in Morgan Fleetwood’s THE SKIN ROOM, a serial-killer narrated thriller that manages to subvert readers’ expectations at every turn. The book drops us squarely in the clever, disturbed mind of Alex Melville, a European translator with a dementia-riddled father, a missing sister, and an unhealthy obsession with blonde women. Early on, Fleetwood begins toying with the typical crime narrative, and he eventually throws away the guidebook altogether. Repeatedly, characters and plot points which seem poised to take a conventional direction instead pivot toward something stranger and more exciting. The book is divided up into three parts, and juggles at least as many distinct tones with grace.
THE SKIN ROOM takes the lead of other ambitious new classics like American Psycho and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and though it’s neither as extreme as the former nor as original as the latter, it has a dark power all its own. The action starts early: Alex underestimates a potential victim–a resilient Italian call girl–and is soon forced to make one life-or-death decision after another, dragging readers down a rabbit hole of desperation and perversion. For significant stretches of the book, THE SKIN ROOM is an adventure story, and for others it comes across like a family drama. Fleetwood toggles deftly between these subgenres, pulling off the tough task of keeping readers invested in Alex’s character even as his true nature becomes appallingly clear. Character development–or perhaps revelation–is laid down carefully, visible at the edges of scenes in Alex’s intrusive thoughts and the lurid shades of yellow that seem to follow him everywhere.
If THE SKIN ROOM has a weak spot, it’s that the author’s inspired, straightforward yet poetic writing style continually cultivates our hope for an existentially powerful ending, one we never get. While the book’s ending is certainly the stuff of nightmares, it fails to pull together each loose end of Alex’s unraveling mind in a resonant way. Much of the book–filled to the brim with golden throwaway lines such “Paris was crackling like ice in a vodka glass, tinkling and swimming in its own artificial light”–reads like esteemable literature, but the ending is pure pulp. The dissonance is as clear and impossible to ignore as Alex’s compulsions.
If you’re looking for a thriller that surprises, disturbs, and occasionally rises above the limits of its genre altogether, look no further than THE SKIN ROOM.
~Valerie Ettenhofer for Indiereader