I was initially disappointed when Richard Montanari switched locales from Cleveland to Philadelphia. I misspent a great deal of my formative years in and around Cleveland, but my experience with Philadelphia is limited to eating an excessive number of those wonderful cheesesteaks that take their name from the City of Brotherly Love. It's all good, however. Montanari has moved geographically but his writing has gotten even better, if such a thing is possible. THE ROSARY GIRLS, which introduced Philadelphia police detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano, broadened Montanari's horizon and widened his audience. THE SKIN GODS, his second Byrne and Balzano book, further pushes the envelope, as well as all the right reader buttons.
THE SKIN GODS finds Kevin Byrne damaged physically and emotionally as a result of the events that took place in THE ROSARY GIRLS. Byrne interrupts his leave when a case from his past --- one in which a vile monster was apprehended, convicted and incarcerated --- is suddenly, and seemingly inexplicably, reopened. Byrne, only at half-strength and in the grip of alcohol abuse, goes back on duty to reinvestigate the case and put a sadistic murderer away for good.
Balzano, meanwhile, is investigating a bizarre series of killings in which the perpetrator is recreating classic film murders, videotaping them, and leaving the tapes in video rental stores. Balzano and Byrne begin a dogged, frustrating investigation that ever so slowly begins to uncover a trail of revenge that leads far back into the past and that will have professional and personal repercussions for Byrne.
Montanari's prose is addicting, and his ability to effortlessly and seamlessly travel between the high and low ends of Philadelphia life is simply first-rate. The plot is equal to the prose. The characters, from major to minor, are unforgettable. There is one, Atkins Pace, a happenstance witness with a photographic memory, who appears for only a page or two but could easily carry an entire novel. Most importantly, however, there is a mystery that forms the foundation of the book --- a serial murderer whose identity will keep you guessing until the very end. I had the killer all figured out and was entirely wrong, and happy for it.
Montanari has at least one more Byrne and Balzano novel planned, after which time he may move on to other things. I predict that no matter where he goes readers of THE SKIN GODS will move with him. Recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011