Someone Else’s Skin ~ Sarah Hilary

w504876Recent months have seen a plethora of new police procedural series coming onto the market and one of the titles which has been most loudly heralded has been Sarah Hilary’s first novel, Someone Else’s Skin.  Featuring London based DI Marnie Rome and her DS Noah Jake, the storyline is particularly pertinent given that I am writing on a day when the police have been criticised yet again for their failure to act in respect of cases of domestic violence.

The action begins as Rome and Jake visit a refuge in the hope of persuading one of the women there to testify against her brothers, who have partially blinded her in an acid attack.  It isn’t the attack itself with which they are primarily concerned.  Rather they are looking for corroborating evidence in respect of the violent nature of one of those brothers so that they can nail him for another crime altogether.  However, as they arrive, they are alerted by frantic screaming to an ongoing situation and walk in on the aftermath of a knife attack by one of the women on her husband who lies dying before their eyes.  All the women appear to support Hope in her claim that she acted out of self-defence and that her husband, Leo, had bought the knife with him, concealed in a bunch of yellow roses, in order to kill her.  Leo’s life is saved by Noah Jake, but he is in no condition to give his own version of what has happened.

For Marnie Rome, the sight of the knife brings back memories of trauma in her own life and she finds it difficult to remain professional in the light of what she has witnessed in her past.  Her immediate assumption that Leo is guilty as charged is questioned by Noah and one of the strengths of this novel is that it also forces the reader to question their own assumptions where domestic violence is concerned at the same time as dealing with the truly horrific mental and physical damage that results whoever the perpetrator and victim might ultimately turn out to be.

When Hope runs away from the hospital where she has been treated for shock, taking with her Simone, another of the women from the refuge, it very quickly becomes apparent that all is not as it appears on the surface and resources are deployed in order to find the two women before even more human damage can result.

The novel has many strengths, not least the two main characters, Rome and Jake who are very well fleshed out and a good contrast to each other.  In tackling domestic violence Hilary has addressed a social issue that doesn’t find its way into fiction that often and is certainly something that needs bringing to public attention far more frequently.  As the story unfolds, the way in which such violence is bred by earlier episodes of ill-treatment is explored and there is a sense of real depth in terms of the research that has gone into the novel.

I think there are weaknesses.  The book is far too busy.  There are too many story-lines for the reader to deal with in too short a narrative space, especially given that they are presented in different timelines as well.  The main reason for this is the need to fill us in on DI Rome’s back story, which is almost identical to the back story of the lead detective in another first novel I’ve read this year.  Is our police force really staffed by so many damaged individuals with such traumatic pasts?  And if they let those pasts get in the way of their doing their jobs in a fair and measured way, should they actually be in post?

With thanks to Headline for making this novel available for review.

Ah! you can see the soapbox coming out again, can’t you?  I’ll put it away for the moment because this is a good book and certainly one that suggests that the author and her characters have far to go.  I will look forward to the second in the series, especially if a growing awareness on the part of the reader of the characters and their history means that those back stories can take rather more of a back seat.

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15 thoughts on “Someone Else’s Skin ~ Sarah Hilary

  1. It’s rather astonishing how many detectives in fiction have a troubled past, I agree. It’s a bit of a cliché by now, I’d say but on the other hand, I guess the detective without a dark past sounds like “cozy material”.
    I like a London setting, so might pick this up some day.

  2. I think that Someone Else’s Skin is a good title. If I see this book I may well read it. The similarity of back stories does suggest that the modern police procedural is rather exhausted… which I guess is inevitable in such a popular and crowded field.

    1. It echoes through the book in a number of different ways, Ian, some of which are perhaps not fully explored. I’m beginning to wonder too if there are not too many writers seeing the police procedural as a relatively easy way to establish a readership. The market is certainly full to over-flowing at the moment.

      1. I recently picked up an interesting short history of crime fiction by Ian Ousby and what he made clear was that concerns about genre exhaustion have been a constant from whatever period you might think of – “golden age”, hard-boiled, police procedural- and yet crime fiction still continues to flourish.

  3. I suppose back stories are always a problem with the first in a planned series, particularly for an inexperienced writer. It’s a case of understanding that the reader doesn’t need to know a character’s entire background all at once to stick with them. Good subject to tackle, though.

    1. I think the point about the inexperienced writer is very well made, Susan. Harry Bingham, who has a whole series of one off thrillers behind him, manages it so much better in ‘Talking with the Dead’ than do the first time writers.

  4. I suppose if you are writing a series the first book is really hard because even though there will be other books to develop characters, there has to be enough backstory in the one to make the reader interested in picking up the next one. A tricky balance to find I suspect.

    1. Yes, I think it is tricky, Stefanie and Susan makes a good point about the first time writer probably finding it more difficult than most.

  5. I really do think the field is overcrowded now and am increasingly tired of damaged and/or maverick cops. Since there’s only a finite number of books we can all manage to read, I sometimes wish publishers would be a little more choosy about which ones make it onto the shelves. That said, I’ve seen a few positive reviews of this one, so here’s hoping the author can turn it into a strong series.

    1. Yes, it is garnering a lot of praise for a first novel, FF. I do agree though that the field is overcrowded. I am wondering if publishers are pushing authors into creating a series in he hope of attracting repeat sales for later books.

      1. Another blogger I follow gives the new entrants to the NY Times bestseller list every week, and about 60% of them are always established series – so I can see why they do it. But I’m trying really hard to stop getting sucked in to following series – so many of them are just average. Trying to read more standalone fiction – it takes a bit more work as a reader, but when they’re good they usually provide more satisfaction.

        1. I’ve just read my first one off for quite sometime and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I agree that a lot of series fiction is pretty mediocre. But, when you do light on a good one it makes it all worth while. I am always so scared that if I give series up altogether I shall miss out on someone extraordinary.

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