Richardson, E. E. Under the Skin (Ritual Crime Unit). Abandon Books.
The first novel aimed at adults from teen horror author E.E. Richardson, Under The Skin is the first in what must be a planned series of books following a fictitious team of British police, known as the Ritual Crime Unit.
Starting with a nighttime raid on a barn, we meet the chief protagonist, DCI Pierce, a middle-aged officer who's been working in the RCU long enough to have the right mix of knowledge and cynicism to fit the classic jaded hero role. Her thoughts and actions are the focus throughout, and she makes for a fairly absorbing guide into Richardson's world.
What the author enjoyably does is to slowly allow us to gain an understanding into Pierce's work and the fantasy world of the unit without spelling it out in standard bad cop procedural fashion. Straight away we are told of 'skinbinders' and magical tattoos and animal pelts being stitched to humans, but the details and reasons are hazy. No time is given for, say, a new recruit to be schooled in all this for the benefit of the reader. We stay with Pierce from the off, as the raid goes horribly wrong, she loses her team to injury and worse, and she spends the following hours racing to solve the mystery.
The skinbinders, the pelts, the silver bullets, are all part of a weird, hidden world of police work where dark magic and ancient rites are real. A series of killings occur at the hands of people who have, through these rites, shifted their bodies into lethal animal form, taking on the form of the skins they bind to themselves. As Pierce attempts to hunt down the culprits, a shadowy government task force pulls her off the case and forces her to spend the rest of day working on the fringes.
So we have a rebellious cop going against procedure. We have bossy superiors and secret service interference. We have a tough, no-nonsense female hero who eats greasy lunches and talks tough with the best of her colleagues. We have, in short, all the ingredients for a dull tred through tired clichés and predictable scenarios, and, admittedly, some dialogue and moments do hallmark this being the case. Yet combined with the original fantasy elements, the story keeps things believable and enjoyable. All the action takes place in the bland everyday of suburban Leeds, a town in the north of England, and most of the characters, including Pierce, have a down-to-earth, underplayed humanity to them that fits the setting. Ok, it's not Nordic noir but it's also not shouty CSI territory, and despite the far-fetched magical action, the events and people all seem very rooted in the real world.
The book ends on a cliffhanger - a rather chilling one - and many loose ends are left dangling, supporting the idea of this being the first in a series, and so it should be, as Richardson does an absorbing job of introducing us to the RCU. What I would have liked more of, and hope to see in the next chapter, are other characters, and more complex details, than this non-stop drama allowed for. Yet I would happily follow Pierce and whoever her new team are in the future.
Objective Score: 6/10
Bonuses: +1 for resisting cliché and dull exposition; +1 for a compelling and sympathetic protagonist; +1 for leaving us wanting more
Penalties: -1 for a being a bit too brief and light on complexity; -1 for, whilst gaining believability, letting the normal dominate over the more exciting fantasy
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10