Here's my wish for Mo Hayder - that the British crime novelist write more novels like The Devil of Nanking, her brilliantly unsettling tale of the horrific Japanese capture of the former Chinese capital in late 1937, and in which hundreds of thousands were slaughtered and as many as 80,000 women raped by soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army.
But until then, I'm more than content to follow the continued investigations of Bristol Detective Inspector Jack Caffery, the latest of which is Skin. It's an immediate follow-up to 2008's Ritual, set in the dark (very dark) underworld of Bristol, here a suffocatingly bleak place in which a bizarre African cult practices horrific rituals and fantastic creatures haunt the streets and waterways.
Ritual also gave us, in addition to Caffery, the vividly realized police diver Phoebe Marley, universally known as Flea, who returns in Skin.
In Mo Hayder's world, evil is never finally overcome, only temporarily subdued, and so the lethally consequential investigation Caffery began into the murderous cult in the previous novel continues here. Only it gets more personal - and threatening, including the possible existence of a menacing figure called a tokoloshe, a destructive South African water creature that's part zombie and part gremlin, but which may simply be a deformed Tanzanian. Amazingly, Hayder makes us believe in the potential reality of such a creature.
At the same time, the overburdened Caffery involves himself in the death of one Lucy Mahoney, a death that at first appears to be a suicide and is later revealed to be something much more sinister.
Flea, meanwhile, faces her own demons, some of them encountered during her dangerous dives in various deep quarries, endgames of choice for the suicidal in southwestern England. Even worse, her alcoholic nogoodnik brother, Thom, whom Flea has bailed out time and again, has landed in the proverbial soup. He's caused a disastrous, and potentially scandalous, accident and it will take all of Flea's considerable resources to save him - and herself. It seems there's a witness. And then Thom's domineering girlfriend turns tigress.
Flea and Caffery run along parallel tracks: Both have terrible tragedies in their past and both are essentially loners who are more than willing to operate outside the constraints of the law (which partially gets around our incredulity that senior police officers never call for back-up). Their convergences are odd: half flirtatious, half antagonistic.
Oh, and we haven't even come to the title yet, and the ominous figure who makes a few brief, teasing appearances before emerging fully fiendish late in the novel, the latest member in Hayder's stream of fatal fetishists. (To say that he may remind you of the Buffalo Bill character in Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs is giving nothing away.)
A warning: Mo Hayder is not a writer for the faint-hearted. Not only is the whiff of always-impending evil pervasive, but her novels are filled with violence, though not usually described in the commission. Hands are cut off, dogs skinned and thrown into quarries, bodies rot. As one character says, "Well, sometimes life kicks you in the face. And when it does your teeth fall out." A fair assessment, I'd say, of Hayder's alertness to the thinness of the layer separating life from death, civilization from chaos.
There are a lot of threads to be tied up in the novel, and at the outset, the reader, especially one who has not read Ritual, may be a bit confused by just how many Hayder has dangling. Still, she ties them up fairly neatly. But, as always with Hayder, the triumph of "good" is only relative. Demons still lurk everywhere.
Mo Hayder's Skin will get under yours.
Globe and Mail Books editor Martin Lvin used to believe in the ultimate triumph of good over evil.