Skin Deep is probably the world’s first tattoo-themed paranormal political crime thriller set in Brisbane. Yet Gary Kemble’s spooky and imaginative debut novel is less surprising for its spread-eagle approach to genre than for its unusual blend of creative strengths.
The book opens with a sickening horror scene. A man is about to be buried alive as his murderers divide up the final, grim tasks: “Cut, or dig?” Waking from that nightmare is our hero, Harry Hendrick – once-promising journalist, now community newspaper hack – who also discovers that a tattoo has inexplicably appeared on the back of his neck. In the coming weeks, more tattoos start to appear, accompanied by more terrifying nightmares that belong to the memory of another man. As Harry works to figure out what is happening to his own body and psyche, he uncovers a dark conspiracy that stretches to the top of Australian federal politics.
Skin Deep is primarily a thriller. In that respect, the reader quickly feels in safe hands with Kemble. The novel has the crucial ingredients of the best of the genre (cracking pace, intricate plotting, irresistible intrigue) while largely evading the cheesy, overblown language of its cheaper examples. (It doesn’t, unfortunately, evade the convention that female victims must come in for the most degrading forms of violence.) Harry is a vulnerable, intelligent hero and it’s impossible not to cheer him on as he sets about piecing together the clues. As the bizarre circumstances take an increasing toll on his mind and body, his determination to crack the mystery sees him regain his long-lost journalistic mojo. The supernatural elements of the novel are handled with subtlety.
An unexpectedly winning aspect of this book, though, is Kemble’s vivid portrait of Brisbane. There are the sleazy property developers, the bikie gangs, the dodgy tabloid journalists and – most disconcertingly – the sinister spectre of a distinctly Queensland brand of populist politician. There’s the heat, the humidity, the storms – tension in the atmosphere that translates to an undercurrent of violence. But if that sounds like a comic-book version of Brisbane in configuration, it’s not in tone. Skin Deep employs the gruff, economical language of conventional thrillers, but Kemble’s treatment of Brisbane is also intimate and affectionate. It’s the sense of place that sells this dark but satisfying genre-mongrel of a debut. SR
Echo, 342pp, $32.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2015 as "Gary Kemble, Skin Deep ". Subscribe here.