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Geoff Nicholson: The City Under the Skin

As I said in a previous review of a Nicholson book, as this is Geoff Nicholson, we know straight away that nothing is what it seems, that there will be games with identities and plot twists within plot twists and, of course, his favourite theme, namely that the border between the sane and insane is not only thin but non-existent, though this is less apparent in this book. And there will be cars. Not Volkswagens this time (we are, presumably, in the US so we get a Cadillac) but cars nonetheless.

We start out with a hit man who kills an unnamed elderly man. We do not know why but the hit man clearly has a reputation as, when he introduces himself – Wroblinsky – the victim recognises the name. The hit man is something of a sadist, as he does not kill the man immediately but makes him suffer awhile. We next see a woman who is seized on the street, bound and a hood put over her head. She is taken, in the boot of a car, to an unknown location, where she is placed face down on a table and her back and buttocks exposed. She is then given a tattoo on her back. We do not know, at this point who she is, what the tattoo is, why she has been given it and by whom. We next meet Billy Moore. He is out on parole and has just purchased a parking lot. He lives on the parking lot. He has one trailer and his twelve-year old daughter, Carla, lives in a small trailer next to him. His wife/her mother is in rehab. He is summoned to meet Wroblinsky. He has already come across him, when he was buying the parking lot at auction. There were two lots up for sale and he had not decided which one to bid for. He is advised by the auctioneer to bid for one but not the other. Initially, he refuses but when he learns that the other bidder is Wroblinsky, he readily concurs and, indeed, gets the one he eventually buys at a good price. However, he is now summoned to meet Wroblinsky where he learns that Wroblinsky was impressed by him and wants to offer him a job. The job entails picking up specific women and taking them to Wroblinsky’s. The women may be reluctant to come but Wroblinsky feels that Billy can handle that. Billy will get a call from Akim, Wroblinsky’s factotum, and will be told who and where.

We also meet Zak Webster who works at Utopiates, a shop dealing in old and rare maps. Zak works for Ray McKinley, a somewhat dubious character but, from Zak’s point of view, a boss who does not interfere much with him and pays him to do a job he likes. One day he sees a homeless woman. She seems in some distress. Initially, he is reluctant to help her but when she does, she reveals her back to him. It is covered in a wild tattoo which, on further inspection, seems to be some crude map, though of what, he is not sure. At this point, a man gets out of a Cadillac parked nearby and grabs hold of the woman, takes her into his car and drives off. Another woman, passing by, comments on this to Zak but both are unsure what happened and what to do about it. We, of course, know that it is Billy who is taking this woman to Wroblinsky. Wroblinsky asks him if anyone saw anything and he says no. However, to make sure, a couple of days later, he goes back to the map shop and knocks Zak around a bit to remind him to keep quiet. The woman who saw the incident on the previous occasion comes into the shop at this time and hits Billy but he is obviously stronger than her and hits her. Both Zak and the woman, Marilyn, end up with black eyes. Inevitably, this brings them closer together and, inevitably, these two innocents set off to find why there are women with maps tattooed on their backs and what Wroblinsky, Billy Moore and Ray McKinley are up to and why. Of course, everything and everyone is connected to everything else and everyone else, often in an unexpected way, while the plot gets seemingly more complicated, but we end up with an explanation for (more or less) everything.

If you know your Nicholson, this book will not be a great surprise for you, except, of course, for the details of the plot. The rich and powerful get their comeuppance at the hands of the ordinary people, the dark side of the city is exposed, black humour abounds and it is all great fun and a good read. And, if you have not read Geoff Nicholson before, while this may not be the place to start – I would probably recommend Still Life with Volkswagens or Bleeding London – you will still find this a good read.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by The City Under the Skin