cover image The City Under the Skin

The City Under the Skin

Geoff Nicholson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-374-16904-6

This zippy yet predictable literary thriller begins promisingly: a series of women, apparently selected at random, are kidnapped, crudely tattooed with coded maps on their backs, and then released. What do the maps mean? Who is responsible? Billy Moore, a petty thug trying to go straight; Wrobleski, a hit man and map collector; and Zak Webster, an amateur cartographer, try to solve the mystery. Billy is hired by Wrobleski to bring the inked women to his boss (whether they come willingly or not), who then locks them away in his gated compound. Meanwhile, Zak searches for clues as to the meaning of these strange events, aided by Marilyn Driscoll, who comes to his aid when Zak’s involvement in the case puts him in danger. Eventually, all parties converge for a rushed, underwhelming climax. Nicholson (Bleeding London) charms the reader with offbeat humor and unexpected narrative tangents, but he doesn’t trust his audience enough. Conversations often run on, with characters overexplaining situations, and coincidences—Billy’s daughter, for example, just happens to suffer from dermatographia, a skin condition resulting in tattoolike marks—are unconvincingly used to draw heroes and villains together. An undercooked novel from a prolific writer. (June)