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by Val McDermid
HarperCollins, May 2006
128 pages
ISBN: 0007216726

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DCI Andy Martin is called to a fire at the home of Jack Farrell. Farrell is a 'cleanskin',: a man who runs many criminal activities, but has never been caught, and Martin is the policeman who is the expert on his activities. Martin gets to the large house and finds the fire has been contained in one wing of the house. In fact, it appears to have destroyed only one room -- that of Farrell's nine-year-old daughter, Katie, who has burned to death.

Farrell is standing on the lawn wrapped in a blanket. He seems to be destroyed by the occurrence. Martin notices that he has an extremely elegant and colourful tattoo of a dragon around his arms and torso. Farrell always wears long sleeves, so Martin had never before been aware of the tattoo. The only other person affected by the fire is Manuela, the Spanish nurse who is treated for smoke inhalation at the hospital but disappears before the police can question her.

A pair of coppers is sent to interview Jack's wife Martina in their Chelsea flat. They report back to Martin that they couldn't talk to her because she has been sedated. The team that is sent to question Manuela also come back with nothing. She appears to have left the country.

Martin and his 'bagman' Detective Sergeant Ben Wilson make an appointment to see Farrell at his lawyer's office. Farrell seems depressed and very unlike his usual perky self. Shortly thereafter, Jack starts selling off bits of his business -- drugs to one person, illegal immigration and prostitution to another, and so on.

The novella is a literary form that has fallen out of favor. However, Val McDermid puts as much into 120 pages as many other people do in 300. She uses short, punchy sentences and, even though the protagonists are policemen, not private investigators, CLEANSKIN has the feeling of the best of American noir.

The typeface is large and open and there is lots of white space on the page. This book is designed to entice the non-reader. I think it does just that admirably. Even the slowest reader can finish this in three-four hours and the normal one in half that time or less.

Reviewed by Barbara Franchi, June 2006

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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