Geoff Nicholson's taut thriller "The City Under the Skin" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pages, $26) 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. The one doing the crushing is a man named Wrobleski, whose name precedes him across the city as, well, as the name of the sort of person who will crush someone to a pulp for you.
Despite his vicious reputation, he's not without his weak points. In some ways, the reputation itself is a weak point — there are jobs he's too notorious to handle.
Enter Billy Moore, whose crimes are more minor league than national league. He's made some mistakes, but now he's making a fresh start, securing the rights to property for starting his own paid parking lot. He lives on that lot with his daughter and gets acquainted with Wrobleski at the auction for the land.
Wrobleski has a job for Billy, if he wants it: At a certain time and day, on a certain street, a certain woman will be walking. Billy is to convince her, one way or another, to get into his car and go with him to Wrobleski's place. The motive? Need-to-know only.
Billy's fine with that. The woman he picks up is in front of a "cartographic antiques" store, and the clerk notices a strange map tattooed on her back before she's whisked away in Billy's car — and so the character of Zak, a "misfit clerk," is pulled into the story. Zak starts investigating: What does this map mean? Are there others with similar tattoos? Where was she taken?
Billy's not fine with that. He "teaches Zak a lesson" — one involving fists, of course, that is only derailed by a customer at the store. She also gets punched, but is undaunted enough to pull Zak along with her in digging deeper.
Other characters get pulled in as the story progresses, but these four are the eye of the storm. 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.
The revelations about the women and their maps, about Billy's motivations, about Wrobleski's Achilles heel come in a slow trickle, and like water leaking into a fissure in a dam, eventually the crack grows and the answers come pouring out. 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 is a writer and psychotherapist. He blogs about books and other things at http://condalmo.com.