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Skin River

Steven Sidor


US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-312-32949-0

$23.95; 241 Pages

Publication Date: September 2, 2004

Date Reviewed: November 30, 2004

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004



Mystery, Horror

Sidor's 'Skin River' turned up in a box from M for Mystery as their first novel of the month pick for October. As is so often the case, it was also noted by The Mysterious Bookstore in NY and Poisoned Pen in Arizona. It practically buzzed its way out of the box and in front of my eyes. And I discovered that sometimes buzz is just a noise.

'Skin River' is a serial killer book, generally never my favorites, although I've been captivated by a couple - P.J. Tracy's 'Monkeewrench' and Jeff Lindsey's 'Darkly Dreaming Dexter'. So, right off the bat, I'll admit I'm a tough, but not impossible, sell. And 'Skin River' just doesn't quite break through the bias to stand out as something out of the ordinary.

'Skin River' focuses on Buddy Bayes, a Chicago criminal - thief, swindler and mid-level thug - who has moved to the backwater town of Gunnar, Wisconsin, to make a new start. Now the owner of a local bar with a tasty, but hands-off full-time waitress, Margot, who lives in the apartment above, Buddy leads a quiet and lonely life. Until he discovers a severed hand as he's walking along the river and becomes the local sheriff's first choice for the murderer. When Margot goes missing, Buddy believes that his Chicago past has returned for vengeance. Turns out that's not quite the case.

Sidor opens his novel with a chilling, thoroughly creepy vignette featuring the true killer, a man referred to as Goatskinner. As the novel progresses, we learn Goatskinner's identity and experience his harrowing and ugly upbringing at the hand of his sadistic alcoholic father. We also learn more about Buddy and his Chicago childhood and life of crime. And we learn about Skin River, the scene of untold other crimes, past and present.

Unfortunately, Sidor's serial killer novel just isn't particularly novel; the typical serial killer elements are all there - abused, alienated and outcast, the killer finds joy only in the murder ritual which he's compelled to repeat again and again till caught. Sidor manipulates these elements effectively, but neither subtly nor uniquely, to build his story. The final scene, with Buddy and Margot walking in the woods, is yet another take on the hackneyed "it's-safe, the-killer-is-dead. Oops!" set-up. The plotting is loose jointed; the Buddy/Chicago story and Goatskinner/Gunnar stories don't come together cleanly or sensibly.

What is unique about 'Skin River' is that Sidor can build so much suspense from such predictable pieces. Sidor's language is simple, stylish and lush, and his story is truly harrowing. While 'Skin River' may not be wildly unusual, it is most certainly scary. The passages describing Goatskinner's childhood are filled with gruesome, gory details that paint a dark and evil world that is truly and memorably terrifying. Buddy's escape up the chimney of his burning bar is pure edge-of-your-seat suspense.

'Skin River' is that unusual situation where the book itself doesn't make the cut, but the writer most definitely does. Sidor's mastery of suspense and terror are top-rate, running closer to pure horror than mystery, and his prose has the strength and substance to do justice to his malevolent vision. In this case, the writing buzzes louder than the narrative, and that buzz is saying Sidor is someone to watch.