Insomniac Press may have marketed Nairne Holtz’s first novel as a murder mystery, but The Skin Beneath has a literary undercurrent that pulls it beyond the shallows of mystery fiction, into the depths of conspiracy theory, with streams of social commentary running through it.
The novel’s not perfect, but it charms, in part because it reads so quickly. Of the twenty-one chapters, many are short enough to be read on the bus or the subway—readers can swim out and get back to shore in just a few minutes. The feisty dialogue, gritty locales, and spicy sex scenes keep the pages turning, and it also feels somewhat scandalous to move deeper into the psyche of Sam O’Connor, the protagonist.
Other characters in The Skin Beneath mistake Sam (short for Samantha) for a man and jaws drop when she walks into the women’s bathroom. She takes her features—reddish hair, freckles, a square jaw and a thin frame—from her father. Sam fancies herself a Casanova, an arrogant sexual outlaw who throws away the phone numbers of women who want to see her a second time.
In the sharp opening chapter, Sam pulls an anonymous postcard out of her mailbox. It reads: “Your sister died while investigating a political conspiracy. Coincidence? How often do women kill themselves with a gun? Think about it.” Didn’t her sister die of an overdose in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City? Sam spends her lunch hour in a food court staring at the postcard, wondering how much she really knows.
The beginning screams classic murder mystery, but as Sam retraces her sister’s footsteps from Toronto to Montreal, and down to Detroit, Holtz steers the novel into the waters of conspiracy theory. The characters in the big North American cities move in a murky world that is part reality, part delusion. There is a disparity between who they are and who they say they are, and always a question mark over what they actually believe happened to Sam's sister.
Holtz guides the characters with quasi-magical cues, including references to rabbits and sense-altering drugs. The result is that Sam moves through an Alice-in-Wonderland-style literary mystery, made gritty by the urban settings. She goes to lavish Hell’s Angels parties, strip bars, anarchist bookstores and even a trade fair for survivalists. Holtz's observations about these settings and Sam’s outsider perspective of Montreal, the main backdrop to the action, are incisive and often outright funny.
“She also stops for a beer at Miami, a bar she recalls Chloe mentioning. It’s a punk palace of decay where three people try to sell her drugs. While punks beg on the Plateau, Miami appears to be the only place where they drink. Yuppie colonization is at hand.”
Holtz makes jabs at the gentrification of Montreal throughout the novel, working in scenes of its working class citizens toiling in the loud, infernal kitchens of small restaurants.
But just as the reader is getting lost in the vivid noise and colour of Sam’s world, Holtz brings the main narrative enigmas back into sharp focus. How did Chloe die? From Omar, the gangster Chloe dated, to Romey, the exotic dancer who was Chloe’s roommate, to Kenneth, her openly gay father, why is everyone who knew Chloe giving different versions of her death?
The narrative is shot through with the refrains of these questions. Although they keep the plot on track, at times they do get tedious. In some places, Holtz also tends to overstate. Take, for example Sam’s visit to Romey for what she thinks will be a chat about her sister. Only when the phone rings and Omar leaves a message inquiring about the “date” does she realize the meeting had a romantic twist. Holtz inserts unnecessary explanations which read like too many notes in a piece of music.
Two-thirds into the story, while in Detroit, Sam visits a tattoo artist who knew Chloe, and comes out with a tattoo of Pinhead, a horror film icon. It acts as a talisman for her journey, and also plays on the title, The Skin Beneath. After all, the novel is ultimately a test of appearances, questioning what people are composed of beneath their facades, social codes, and sexual appearances.
Fortunately, Holtz’s characters have believable and complex identities to satisfy the reader. Sam’s father may be gay, but he never talks about it. Omar may be Chloe’s former sweetheart, but he also runs an escort agency. Amanda, with whom Sam travels to Detroit, presents herself as an erudite bookstore clerk and conspiracy theorist, but with her well-used passport, vague travel background, and cool-headedness in posing as someone else, she could very well be a spy. Sam continuously peels back layers of names, roles and identity, in the end only to discover that her sister, like the other characters, is not at all who she first thought.
The steady pace and eclectic collection of characters of this novel set in a convincing murky underground world and penned with a literary eye, make it worth the read. On her first time out, Holtz has certainly had a lot of fun.