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The City Under the Skin
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The City Under the Skin

4.0 1
by Geoff Nicholson

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A cartographic thriller with so many twists and turns it requires its own map

A cartography-obsessed misfit clerk from an antique map store in a district that's not quite trendy yet. A bold young woman chasing the answer to a question she can't quite formulate. A petty criminal hoping the parking lot he's just purchased is the ticket to a new life of


A cartographic thriller with so many twists and turns it requires its own map

A cartography-obsessed misfit clerk from an antique map store in a district that's not quite trendy yet. A bold young woman chasing the answer to a question she can't quite formulate. A petty criminal hoping the parking lot he's just purchased is the ticket to a new life of respectability with his school-age daughter. A ruthless but vulnerable killer and his disgruntled accomplice. In The City Under the Skin, it's not fate that will bind these characters together but something more concrete and sinister: the appearance of a group of mysterious women, their backs crudely and extensively tattooed with maps.
They have been kidnapped, marked, and released, otherwise unharmed. When one turns up on the doorstep of the map shop and abruptly bares her back, only to be hustled away by a man in a beat-up blue Cadillac, it's the misfit clerk Zak, pushed by his curious new friend Marilyn, who finds himself reluctantly entering a criminal underworld whose existence he'd prefer to ignore.
In this haunting literary thriller, Geoff Nicholson paints a deft portrait of a city in transition. His sharply drawn characters are people desperate to know where they are but scared of being truly seen. A meditation on obsession and revenge, a hymn to the joys of urban exploration, The City Under the Skin is a wholly original novel about the indelible scars we both live with and inflict on others.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Fiona Maazel
…Geoff Nicholson's new crime novel…compels the way a good crime novel should: by making you turn the pages at a clip. The novel is preoccupied with maps…Maps are selective, Zak tells us. They are also nostalgic, "always referring to the past, to something that no longer quite exists, because no matter how current a map is…it's out-of-date as soon as it's been made." In this sense, mapmaking is less about exorcising anxiety than about ratifying it, which is perhaps why so many in The City Under the Skin find camaraderie—even solace—in the contemplation of maps and in the novel's sometimes goofy, sometimes breezy, but always gripping exposure of their design.
Publishers Weekly
This zippy yet predictable literary thriller begins promisingly: a series of women, apparently selected at random, are kidnapped, crudely tattooed with coded maps on their backs, and then released. What do the maps mean? Who is responsible? Billy Moore, a petty thug trying to go straight; Wrobleski, a hit man and map collector; and Zak Webster, an amateur cartographer, try to solve the mystery. Billy is hired by Wrobleski to bring the inked women to his boss (whether they come willingly or not), who then locks them away in his gated compound. Meanwhile, Zak searches for clues as to the meaning of these strange events, aided by Marilyn Driscoll, who comes to his aid when Zak’s involvement in the case puts him in danger. Eventually, all parties converge for a rushed, underwhelming climax. Nicholson (Bleeding London) charms the reader with offbeat humor and unexpected narrative tangents, but he doesn’t trust his audience enough. Conversations often run on, with characters overexplaining situations, and coincidences—Billy’s daughter, for example, just happens to suffer from dermatographia, a skin condition resulting in tattoolike marks—are unconvincingly used to draw heroes and villains together. An undercooked novel from a prolific writer. (June)
From the Publisher

“Geoff Nicholson's new crime novel, The City Under the Skin . . . compels the way a good crime novel should: by making you turn the pages at a clip . . . Nicholson prefers the hard-boiled to the philosophical. His characters truck in dialogue that is so stylized, so noirish, it's pretty fun to read. Everyone's got a zinger at the ready.” —Fiona Maazel, The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)

“In Nicholson's atmospheric chiller, his sixteenth novel, he continues to focus on the obsessed outsiders who make his work both entertaining and compelling. Cartography expert Zak runs a map store in a verging-on-trendy neighborhood. When a young woman stumbles into his shop and shows him the crude tattoo on her back, he recognizes the outlines of an inexpertly drawn map. Before he can decipher the location depicted, she is whisked away by a tough guy driving a beat-up blue Cadillac. The only other witness, a feisty young woman outfitted in thrift-store clothes, determines that the two should investigate. And that investigation takes them to some scary places, including the rambling, industrial-looking digs of the obese and powerful local crime lord, Wrobleski. It seems that there are more women who have been extensively tattooed with crude maps. Can a nerdy, map-obsessed urban explorer take down the hard-core thugs who seem to be running a criminal underworld? Let's hope so. With its fast-paced, dryly witty dialogue; looming, darkened cityscapes; wonderfully offbeat characters, including an enforcer with childcare problems; and metaphoric riffs on disorientation, this is a hugely entertaining crime novel.” —Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist (starred review)

“Geoff Nicholson's taut thriller The City Under the Skin, wastes no time in establishing its tone, with a sneering, sarcastic conversation between two men that ends with one of them crushed in the trunk of a car . . . Nicholson works within the boundaries of a thriller framework and moves the story forward accordingly, but he does it in a way that manages to subvert any expectations you might have of where the story will lead . . . Nicholson's writing is controlled enough to contain the revelations for longer than one has any right to expect, and the result is a superb reckoning.” —Matthew Tiffany, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Take a deep two-hundred-page breath before you start: Geoff Nicholson's The City Under the Skin is really less about what can be mapped than what can't, his typically unhinged topography alive with his typically memorable characters, scrambling madly for new coordinates and dragging their latitudes and longitudes behind them. Irresistible, singular, laced with the black wit that dares you to laugh and dares you not to, teetering among the horrors you try to banish from your dreams before inviting them back.” —Steve Erickson, author of Zeroville and These Dreams of You

“An excursion through a city of secrets, scars, facades, hidden depths, ‘images' that may or may not be authentic, and people with their own traces and ruins left within it. If ‘cartographic noir' can be considered a genre, Nicholson may well have established it.” —Anthony Miller, Los Angeles Magazine

“The pleasure here is as much in the enjoyment of the text, chapter by chapter, as it is in the larger story: what Nicholson excels at is the smaller exchanges, the quirky details, the incidental events. His familiar themes of obsession and obsessiveness are found here, nicely handled, and the mapping-idea works well, as Nicholson also plays with varieties of tattooing (and tattoos-as-forms-of-maps), including the neat one of dermatographia . . . a very enjoyable read.” —M.A. Orthofer, The Complete Review

Kirkus Reviews
Young women with maps crudely tattooed on their backs hold answers to the mysteries posed in Nicholson's arch urban thriller.No one knows who kidnapped the women, blindfolded them and etched the maps into their skin—they're otherwise unharmed and promptly returned home. But several people are interested in the maps, which seem to point to a shadowy underground where an unidentified reward awaits. Wrobleski, a murderous criminal, will do anything to lay his hands on it. He bullies Billy, an aimless parking-lot owner with a jaded 12-year-old daughter, into collecting the tattooed women and acting as his henchman. Among those Billy roughs up is Zak, a cartography-store clerk who becomes involved with the hard-edged Marilyn; while privately dealing with the trauma of being defiled by a tattoo attacker years ago, she's combing the city for clues on the disappearance of her grandfather. She lives in the long-shuttered Telestar Hotel, a '60s relic he designed. At times, the novel comes off like a sardonic answer to the film comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, with its odd assortment of characters, rapid pacing and offbeat touches. But the author, who has also written a nonfiction book called The Lost Art of Walking (2008), is seriously devoted to the physical history of places, as reflected in the wealth of maps in the book—including the unsavory Rape Map, which charts where various assaults have taken place. "Maps are always nostalgic one way or another," says Zak. The novel also speaks to how cities are reshaped and, more importantly, reimagined.This "cartographic thriller" by the British-born, Los Angeles-based Nicholson doesn't always rise to its subject, but it does a good job of making us think about our surroundings and the people in them.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


The old man was walking to his car. He was dapper, sedate, serious, wearing a dark navy blazer, a plume of silver handkerchief rising from his breast pocket. His hair, similarly silver, glinted in the lights of the underground parking lot. There was only the slightest hesitancy in his step, and although he carried a walking cane—lacquered mahogany with a silver head in the shape of a globe—it might well have been just for show.

Another man stood in the shadow of a broad concrete pillar. He was a big man, but there was something compacted about him, so that his considerable size and weight didn’t suggest fatness but a concentration of flesh and energy. His face was flat, and carved into frown lines. His eyes were grave and sly. His name was Wrobleski. He watched the old man as he approached his car and produced the key. Wrobleski smoothed down his jacket. Some guys liked to put on special gear when they worked; wraparound shades, scarves, black kid gloves, but Wrobleski was not “some guy.” He preferred to wear a good suit—though not too good, given the task ahead.

The old man matched his vehicle: it was Wrobleski’s experience that they always did. They both looked sleek, polished, well-appointed, but maybe a little sluggish. Wrobleski stepped out of the shadow, hands by his sides, his face heavy but open, and he walked over to the old man.

“Nice ride,” he said, nodding toward the car.

The old man looked just a little surprised to find someone suddenly standing so close to him. He’d assumed he was alone. Even so, he was unruffled. He nodded back in agreement. Yes, it was a nice ride.

“What kind of mileage do you get from this thing?”

“I have no idea,” the old man said suavely, demonstrating that he didn’t have to care about such things.

“Right,” said Wrobleski, “you’re my kind of guy.”

“I doubt that,” said the old man; and then, “Do I know you?”

“My name’s Wrobleski.”

The old man did his best not to react, though that wasn’t easy. A slight stiffening of his bottom lip was all that showed.

“Really?” he said. “Wrobleski?”

“You’ve heard of me.”

“Yes, but I thought you were just an ugly rumor.”

“If only.”

“And you’re here to kill me?”

“Very good. It’s easier if we both know what’s going on.”

“I don’t think so,” the old man said calmly. “I think you’ve made a mistake.”

“I really don’t make mistakes.”

The old man’s eyes skimmed around him, from recessed shadow to bright burns of artificial light. Both men knew there was nothing to be seen, no escape routes, no panic buttons, no Good Samaritans. The security cameras had been put out of commission.

“Why exactly?” the old man said.

“Because I’m being paid to.”

“That’s no answer.”

It would have to do. Wrobleski wondered if the old man was going to make a run for it: some of these old guys prided themselves on being fit. He also wondered if he might have a gun on him: some of them liked to think they could defend themselves. They were always wrong about that. But by then Wrobleski had his own gun in his hand and he fired it into the old man’s right leg. The draped flannel of the pants and the flesh beneath splashed open and the victim sank to one knee.

“Oh good God,” the old man said quietly, and he grabbed his injured leg with one hand, his chest with the other. Wrobleski wondered if he might be having a heart attack. Well, wouldn’t that be a joke?

The old man didn’t have the strength to remain kneeling: he fell over onto his side, gasping for air.

“Couldn’t you do it ‘execution style’?” he sneered gamely.

“But where’s the sport in that?” said Wrobleski.

He fired again, into the other leg. The impact straightened the old man out, left him lying horizontally, legs apart, both arms now clutched to his torso. His car key was lying on the ground a couple of feet away, and Wrobleski picked it up and unlocked the car. He reached inside, popped open the trunk, then scooped up the wounded man and folded him into the trunk, as if he were a ventriloquist’s dummy. It was easy: there was plenty of room in there. It could have been designed for it. He slammed the lid shut.

“You all right in there?” Wrobleski yelled.

The voice from inside said something that answered the question, however unintelligibly. Wrobleski only needed to know that the old man was still breathing, still able to feel.

He got in the driver’s seat, started the car, revved the engine just a little, selected reverse, then floored the accelerator, so that the vehicle shot backward at speed, across to the wall on the other side of the parking lot. The trunk slammed into the pale, rubber-streaked concrete. Wrobleski was pretty sure that once would be enough, but he did it again anyway, just to be sure. Then he got out, surveyed the damage, the crushing and crumpling of the car’s bodywork, which indicated similar damage to the old man.

Wrobleski gave no signal, made no phone call, but precisely as arranged and scheduled, a tow truck lurched down the ramp from the parking level above and positioned itself in front of the damaged car. A young, long-limbed black man in indigo overalls levered himself out of the cab and walked languidly to the back of the truck, where he began hooking up the old man’s car.

“Thank you, Akim,” Wrobleski said to the driver with exaggerated formality; then added, “It’s good to see a man who believes in the dignity of labor.”

Wrobleski scrutinized the area where he’d driven the car into the wall. There were various liquids smeared across the concrete floor, pools and rivulets, forming a pattern, a not quite random design, that to a certain kind of eye might look like the map of some undiscovered country. Satisfied that none of the liquids were blood, he allowed himself a small flicker of pride at a job well done.

Copyright © 2014 by Geoff Nicholson

Meet the Author

Geoff Nicholson is the author of sixteen novels. His debut, Street Sleeper, was short-listed for the Yorkshire Post First Work Award; Bleeding London was short-listed for the Whitbread Prize; and Bedlam Burning was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year. His nonfiction titles include Sex Collectors and The Lost Art of Walking, and his journalism has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Bookforum, Gastronomica, ArtReview, Black Clock, The Believer, McSweeney's, The Los Angeles Times and Custom Car. He is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. He was born in Sheffield, England, and currently lives in Los Angeles.

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The City Under the Skin 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Billyt1 More than 1 year ago
Very entertaining, interesting story. Characters are very different . Ending is satisfactory, although it only comes about as a result "dishonor among the evil doers". I would have liked to know a bit more of Marilyn's background, and what future holds for Billy, Marilyn & Zak. I can't give it 5 stars because of these loose ends