Skin Lane by Neil Bartlett
Mr F has worked for 33 of his 47 years in the fur trade in 60s London and is a master cutter who takes pride in his work. A bachelor, he leads a strictly ordered life, running by a to the minute timetable that rarely deviates. It’s not a normal life, but then neither was his female-free childhood. Then he starts to have dreams, nightmares in which he discovers the bleeding body of a beautiful youth tied up in his bathroom. They won’t go away, and he finds himself obsessing about the body, looking at young men when he’s on the train. At work in Skin Lane, in the fur-trading area of the city, Mr F has further reason to be perturbed. He’s put in charge of training the nephew of the firm’s owner in cutting as part of learning the business. The boy has been nicknamed Beauty by the girls in the sewing room, and Mr F although initially aloof is increasingly interested in the boy, then realises that he resembles the body in the shower …
This chilling drama will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Firstly, it is told through a knowing narrator’s voice, who always knows what’s coming next; we are manipulated all the way through and this device successfully ratchets up the tension notch by notch. Secondly, we learn all about the fur trade – from selecting skins, cutting, sewing, and finally the selling of fur coats to men who give them to their floozies for sex.
The book started slowly, building up the story of Mr F’s over-normal life, and learning about the trade which made fascinating reading. All along the narrator gives a sense of bad things to come. I must admit, when they did start to turn nasty, I thought the narrator was leading us down a more grizzly path than actually happened, (an overactive imagination or what!); I had visions of ghoulish Jack the Ripper style murders to come. However what we got was much more subtle than that and also inextricably linked to the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast, which was Mr F’s childhood favourite.
I can honestly say I had no idea what was going to happen or how things would end. I was expecting Mr F to be a real monster, yet ended up feeling sorry for him, instead hating Beauty’s beastly ways. This was a masterly novel of suspenseful storytelling. If you have the stomach for it, I’d strongly recommend it. (9/10, I bought this book).