SKIN opens a few days after the climax of Mo Hayder's previous book, RITUAL, when the body of a young woman is found in the countryside outside Bristol. Quickly establishing that the victim is not Misty Kitson, the celebrity footballer's wife who had disappeared in the earlier novel, Detective Inspector Jack Caffery soon concludes that the woman did not commit suicide. He begins to investigate the events leading up to her death, uncovering quite a few unusual details about her lifestyle. At the same time, he is increasingly uneasy about the past few weeks, becoming convinced that there was another person in the house where he apprehended the criminal at the heart of the "ritual" case. Although there was no obvious escape route from the house, a very small person could have squeezed through a small window. After some database research, Jack thinks that an illegal immigrant from Tanzania, the brother of a previous suspect, fits his suspicions. But is this presumed fugitive also a Tokoloshe – a spirit who collects human tissue – and if so, is he haunting Jack for souvenir specimens?
Police diver Phoebe "Flea" Marley's story continues in SKIN. She and Jack intersect briefly at the start of the novel, but in most of the book they follow separate investigations. Flea makes a gruesome discovery about the activities of her brother Thom – as described in RITUAL, Flea has covered up for Thom when a police colleague wants to breathalyse him for speeding, by pretending that she was driving at the time. This act of generosity comes back to haunt her in SKIN, leaving her caught between family loyalty and her duty to uphold the law. Agonising over her moral dilemma, she fails to realise the danger she is in. The only way she can dig herself out is to deal with a rather repellent woman who has some crucial information – available at a price, possibly. Then another woman becomes her adversary.
The first half of SKIN is rather slow, permeated by this author's trademark interests in body parts, subcutaneous events, decomposition, deformities and prickling discomfort. The scientific detachment of these descriptions has a far more effectively chilling and repulsive effect than any amount of overheated prose would have done. The author is an expert at leaving just enough to the reader's imagination, and she does not hold back from exploring bizarre and the shocking themes that most of us would prefer to brush under the carpet.
About half way through the book, Jack's and Flea's separate stories take off and it's an exciting race for Jack to work out the details of his own case as well as acknowledging his increasing suspicions about the mess Flea is in, before disaster strikes several times over. I wasn't convinced, however, by the "resolution" of the three main plot threads: the Tokoloshe, Jack's apparent suicide victim, and the vanished footballer's wife. The book is easy to read, but I find the behaviour of Jack and Flea too stupid to be believable (they are both presented as highly intelligent individuals) and lacking in convincing motivation. Maybe I am missing out on something that will be revealed in future, but there are too many inconsistencies and plain daftness – for example, too much of the "person entering alone into perilous situation while leaving no message" cliche, despite the same characters having fallen into similar traps in previous books. Although Jack's actions towards Flea are understandable, I don't follow why she acted as she did in the closing chapters – this may of course be my own failing rather than a fault of the book.
SKIN is certainly a good read, with some genuinely creepy original ideas and characters. I'd like to have seen more of the Wandering Man; his appearance electrifies the book, but is too brief.