Translated by Dr Jacky Collins — Everything about Skin Deep is, well, a little unusual. If you’re someone who likes to adventure beyond straightforward plotting, storytelling and character traits, you should find this peculiar 110-page novella most interesting. Taking you from Biarritz in southwest France to Paris and back again, it will give you glimpses of French society from some different perspectives.
Much of the novel reads like a police procedural, and it begins with the discovery of a corpse in a lower-end holiday apartment in Biarritz, near the Spanish border. Inspector Canonne arrives to investigate and, nursing a painful failed tooth implant, is immediately rubbed the wrong way by the pathologist at the scene. Straight away you get the feeling he’s a cynical old cop, worn down by years of service, whose mind is partly elsewhere.
Once Canonne establishes that the body belonged to a very wealthy and well-connected woman in her 80s, the pressure is on for him to solve the case. Government-level pressure. Soon, he finds out that she had a lover – the new age composer Émile Gassiat is just in his 20s and claims he was at sea recording the sound of the waves when the murder took place, but nobody can confirm this.
The strange lines on Elizabeth Audiard’s skin remind Canonne of musical notation so for him Gassiat is as guilty as sin and, along with his colleagues in the French legal system, he thinks that because Gassiat was having sex with an octogenarian it must be him. Either a weirdo, a gold digger or both. But there’s no DNA placing Gassiat at the scene, and no other proper evidence. Just their assumptions.
Fortunately for the very quiet, controlled and unfazed Gassiat, his other lover, Iréne Duroudier, also a powerful, wealthy woman in her 80s, believes in his innocence. She hires Albert Larten to exonerate the young man, who is being held on suspicion of murder. Larten couldn’t be more different to Canonne. He wears scarves, makeup, nail polish and heels when it suits him and lives in a camper van most of the time. When he’s hired on a case he drives to the location, parks up and lives near the crime scene. Larten occupies a sexuality described as ‘other’ in the book, something his girlfriend’s feelings oscillate on and that too is a normal part of his life.
Larten is immediately able to look at Gassiat through different lens, unimpaired by the judgments Canonne and the judge have applied. He quickly starts digging into the case, taking particular interest in what was left on Elizabeth Audiard’s skin. He doesn’t see bars of music, he’s looking at things more deeply.
In such a short page count, Skin Deep weaves, flows with the tides, then hits a counter current. Early on it feels a little like Spiral, immersing us in French criminal justice. Then it’s a detective novel. Later, it veers away from mystery and feels more like true crime, even though it’s fiction. Clues aren’t set out for us the way they are in other crime novels, instead we are given an account of how Larten quickly solves the case, circling back to Canonne, who might have a little epiphany once he gets over Larten’s eyeshadow.
The case itself develops rapidly and eventually it turns out there have been other connected murders. The book never dwells much on procedure or the grind of an investigation. Author Antonia Lassa explores various things in French society such as gender identity, relationships, the aging process and even musical creativity. Emphasising themes of scandal and judgement there are references to Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Though set in France, the novel was written in Spanish, which perhaps gives it an added layer of intrigue. Maybe its unusual character comes about partly because we look at the story through the prism of three languages?
Skin Deep is a quick and enjoyable read which certainly covers more ground than a novella should. Even if you believe yourself to be free thinking, it’ll probably challenge some of your own preconceptions.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars