First in a promising new series, Sung J. Woo’s Skin Deep introduces Siobhan O’Brien—a 40-year-old Korean American adopted in infancy by an Irish father and a Nordic mother. For the past two years, the laid-off newspaper reporter has been apprenticing under Ed Baker, a private detective in the upstate New York town of Athena. Now that she finally has her PI license, Siobhan is eager to assume more professional responsibility—but when Ed dies of a heart attack and bequeaths her the agency, she suffers a crisis of confidence. Siobhan strongly considers liquidating the business’s meager assets and starting over, but then her dead best friend’s little sister, Josie Sykes, shows up at the office. Two weeks ago, the dean of Llewellyn—a formerly single-sex liberal arts college in nearby Selene, New York—called to advise Josie that her adopted 18-year-old daughter, Penelope Hae Jun Sykes, was taking a leave of absence. Josie has since been unable to contact Penny, and is deeply concerned for her welfare—especially given that the girl has a serious medical condition. Siobhan agrees to assist, enrolling as a continuing education student at Llewellyn to provide cover. Her investigation reveals a newly coed campus full of furious feminists, a suspiciously robust police presence, and a tight-lipped college president who has ties to a yoga retreat with cult-like roots. A diverse cast replete with vividly sketched characters—the majority of them female—elevate this fun take on the classic PI novel. Siobhan is a snarky, smart, and refreshingly relatable narrator whose burgeoning romance with a widowed lawyer adds to the tale’s emotional complexity without detracting from its central puzzle. Snappy dialogue complements the breezy plot, which, like Siobhan, never takes itself too seriously. Kinsey Millhone fans, this one’s for you.
Katrina Niidas Holm / Mystery Scene (https://www.mysteryscenemag.com/component/content/article/26-reviews/books/6934-skin-deep-2)
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.
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.