Big thanks to the kind folks at CrimeReads for highlighting Skin Deep in their July roundup!
Here’s more evidence that the private detective is enjoying a very welcomed resurgence in the crime fiction world. Sung J. Woo’s new novel features an inimitable PI, Siobhan O’Brien, a Korean adoptee who has somewhat haphazardly inherited her old boss’s agency and finds herself at a crossroads, unsure if she should continue down the line. The proverbial last job comes through, dragging Siobhan upstate to a seemingly idyllic liberal arts college with a girl gone missing from her dorm. The college is a hotbed of subcultures, and Siobhan has to learn each of their quirks and rivalries to keep the case moving forward. Skin Deep manages to be an entertaining, wickedly clever mystery and also a thoughtful meditation on adoption, culture, and identity. –DM
Despite her Asian features, her father really is Irish, her mother Norwegian. Her name is Siobhan O’Brien, never mind everyone’s surprise when trying to gauge the incongruity between her face and that moniker. Short answer: Siobhan is a Korean-born, upstate New York–raised transracial adoptee. At 40, she’s just inherited a private investigation agency since her boss of two years has suddenly dropped dead (of natural causes). The business has enough banked to last three months, or she could sell and net a comfy $20,000-ish. Inexperience aside, she chooses to stay open, and her first case turns out to be a doozy: to reunite her late best friend’s younger sister with her missing teenage daughter, Siobhan will need to infiltrate a radical womyn’s group at a nearby college, agree to trespassing, check into a yoga center, get poisoned by mushrooms, avoid a multinational billionaire’s posse, and, in between, maybe even risk falling in love.
VERDICT: With just the right mix of clever twists, endearing charm, looming threats, and contemporary issues (identity, privilege, cultural appropriation, the ugliest parts of the beauty trade), literary novelist Woo (Love Love) debuts quite the absorbing new mystery series, hopefully with multiple volumes to come.
Thank you to Booklist, the reviewing arm of the American Library Association, for a nice review of Skin Deep!
Siobhan O’Brien is marking her second anniversary at the Ed Baker Investigative Agency when she finds her boss dead at his desk and then learns that he has left his business to her. A Korean American adoptee, who must explain her name constantly, she takes her first solo case from an old acquaintance. Josie Sykes’ daughter, Penny, cut off contact with her mother just months into her freshman year at Llewellyn College in upstate New York, and after Josie’s efforts to reach the girl are rebuffed by a feminist contingent protesting changes in the direction the college is taking, Josie hires Siobhan to find Penny. It’s a job that takes the neophyte detective into the inner workings of Llewellyn, whose former-model president, despite the college’s supposed financial straits, is launching a yoga and healing center and pursuing bizarre research on forestalling aging. Despite a somewhat hasty wrap-up, this first in a series holds promise, given Woo’s punchy prose style, diverse milieu, and the potential romantic relationship between Siobhan and the lawyer whose office is down the hall. A series to watch. — Michele Leber
Woo strikes out in a wholly new direction with this soft-boiled debut mystery about a private eye’s search for a frenemy’s missing daughter.
On the day she’s celebrating her second anniversary with the Ed Baker Investigative Agency, Korean American adoptee Siobhan O’Brien, nee Kim Shee-Bong, finds her boss unexpectedly dead, leaving her the sole proprietor of a business worth maybe $20,000 on a good day. Will Siobhan, an ex-reporter of 40, shut the place down? Not if pushy Josie Sykes, the younger sister of Siobhan’s late friend Marlene, has anything to say about it. Josie’s daughter, Penelope Hae Jun Sykes, who, like Siobhan, was adopted, has vanished from Llewellyn College, where she was a first-year student. The members of the Womyn of Llewellyn, who took her in and maybe did a number on her, insist that she’s fled the emotional abuse of her overbearing mother and that they don’t have to answer to her. Siobhan, who interviewed Llewellyn president Vera Wheeler shortly after her appointment, finds that an awful lot has changed on campus in the five years since. Wheeler seems determined to admit no one but beauty queens and make over the college into a temple of state-of-the-art cosmetology. Her plans have put her at odds with the Krishna Center in nearby Hawthorne, New York, where Penny’s allegedly hunkered down—or maybe, as Siobhan gradually learns when she goes undercover at Llewellyn and Krishna as a reporter, they haven’t after all. Woo’s vision of the Stepford College is logistically shaky but metaphorically resonant.
The prize is a heroine who’s by turns wide-eyed, gravely amused, susceptible, and plenty cool enough for an encore.