Zeroing in on the Truth: Skinner by Charlie Huston

Out this month, Skinner is Charlie Huston’s foray into the world of spy fiction. Dealing with a Stuxnet-like cyber-attack on the U.S. electrical grid, Skinner attempts to be a spy novel for the 21st century. 

I should start by admitting that I don’t read a lot of spy novels. I read a few Tom Clancy novels in my youth, some James Bond novels, but typically spy adventures, especially in the post-Cold War period, don’t hold a lot of appeal for me. 

I am, however, a fan of Charlie Huston’s work. I tend to think of Huston’s work by its trajectory, mentally diagramming the path of the narrative. In Caught Stealing, for example, protagonist Henry Thompson’s path is like a ball rolling down hill. It moves slowly at first, but soon picks up speed, continually falling farther, moving faster and faster. This is, indeed, also the model for its sequels Six Bad Things and A Dangerous Man

The Joe Pitt novels, however, feel a bit different. Beginning with Already Dead, they tell the story of Joe Pitt, a vampire fixer in New York, navigating between the various vampire factions in the city. This series evokes the ballistics of a billiards table, shots aimed, bounced, misdirected, shot again. Many moving pieces, many potential collisions. 

All of these earlier works have a kind of energetic thrust to them, the action always moving forward, the prose stripped back, not weighed down by unnecessary items like attribution tags or even quotation marks. 

Skinner, however, like the character the book is named for, is a different kind of animal and feels much slower. The energy of the book is less linear, taking a more circular approach. Do you know those charity buckets where you drop a coin in and it spirals down toward the center, tighter and tighter? It’s like that. In a way, this is completely appropriate for this kind of novel where the characters similarly circle the facts of the event, slowly but steadily zeroing in on the truth. Still, the book doesn’t really pick up until halfway through, something some readers might not be willing to stick with. 

Skinner takes place in our modern age, in the post-Halliburton era where espionage has been farmed out to corporatized security firms and threats to national security take the form of viruses and worms targeting the electrical grid. Such an attack occurs on the United States luring a few disgraced and discarded operatives out of the shadows. 

The first of these is Terrence, former head of private security company Kestrel, now ousted from the firm he built. He’s brought in for one final op, heading up the investigation into this cyber-attack because of his relationship with one of the essential operatives, Jae, a woman who likes tinkering with robots and can pull meaning and connections out of seemingly unconnected data. Terrence’s price to work for Kestrel is to bring in Skinner, a supposedly dead (but really only disappeared) killer to protect her. 

Meanwhile, we’re given glimpses into a slum in Bombay, India where a young boy named Raj (no relation) bears witness to a startling change in his neighborhood. How this ties into the attack and the subsequent investigation is only made clear at the climax of the novel. 

The novel is named Skinner, so of course there’s a kind of significance to that character, despite the fact he shares the POV of the novel with other characters. Skinner gets his name from his childhood spent (partially) in a Skinner box, essentially being little more than an experiment for his radical behaviorist parents. The result of this upbringing is that he’s a very good killer, if an odd fit into normal human interactions. Skinner makes everyone around him uneasy, including Jae, but together they embark on a mission to figure out the origin of the cyber-attack. 

As you might expect from this kind of espionage fare, there are plenty of twists and turns, and some intriguing revelations along the way. Even as a shape starts to emerge in the plotting, the narrative retains the ability to surprise. 

I generally liked Skinner—I liked the characters, I liked the ending and the various reveals along the way. But I often felt like I was prevented from getting as close to the story as I wanted to be. Part of that is intentional—no one truly knows what’s going on until the end, so that disorientation is part of the world that Huston dropped these characters into. But amidst the data and the doublespeak and all the many intricacies of 21st century global reality, it’s sometimes hard to get a good grasp on the human element of the story. 

?In the end, though, I was willing to forgive Huston. What I considered flaws in the novel seem to make perfect sense if viewed in a metafictional way. The slow pacing of the beginning, the distance from the characters, the aggregation of seemingly endless data points all help illuminate aspects of the story. The trick is sticking with it long enough to get to that point. 

I can’t say that Skinner engaged me as much as Huston’s previous work, but it did give me a lot more to think about and managed to surprise me more than once. If you can stick with it through the slow burn of the first half, the second half pays off. If any of you have read it, I’d love to hear what you thought in the comments. 

Skinner is available now from Mulholland Books.

Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator and book reviewer who appreciates electricity, especially on super-hot summer days. You can follow him on his website and on Twitter.


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