By Mike Rougeau
Professor Gary Goshgarian, whose last novel, “Flashback,” became the first thriller to win the Massachusetts Honor Book Award for Fiction in 2006, has once again pleased critics and fans with his latest book, “Skin Deep.”
“Skin Deep,” published by Forge Books in July, has been getting good reviews from publications like Publishers Weekly and Mystery Scene magazine.
Goshgarian, who teaches several classes in the English department, like Horror Fiction and Science Fiction, has been writing fiction under the pen name Gary Braver since the early 1980s. He said “Skin Deep” is a medical thriller, which is set in the greater Boston area. Numerous locations on and around Northeastern’s campus are mentioned in the novel, including Shillman and Churchill halls.
In the novel, which Goshgarian said took 18 months to write, Lieutenant Detective Steve Markarian investigates a mysterious serial killer who has been targeting beautiful women in the city. As Markarian unearths clues about the killer’s psyche, however, he begins to suspect that certain factors have caused him to develop a split personality. To his horror, Markarian begins to think that he may be the murderer, Goshgarian said.
Goshgarian said the idea of an investigator unknowingly investigating himself is unusual in literature.
“When you’re writing a crime novel, you’re always looking for a unique approach, a unique slant on the investigation,” he said.
In “Skin Deep,” Goshgarian said he puts a new twist on the familiar “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” motif.
One of the challenges Goshgarian said he faced while writing the book was presenting a realistic version of crime scene investigation.
“I didn’t want to do a cop show. I wanted the real thing,” he said.
Goshgarian said he conducted countless interviews with Police Lieutenant John J. McLean, a former homicide detective and the current head of cybercrime at the Medford Police Department, to make sure he was painting a realistic picture.
“There were two things I was interested in,” Goshgarian said. “One, the police procedural stuff. How does a crime scene investigation really take place? How can a cop screw up a crime scene?”
The second aspect of police work Goshgarian said he was interested in for the novel was the psychological trauma that detectives sometimes face.
“[Detectives] see some of the worst scenes imaginable, outside of … a war zone,” he said. “That human aspect was what [McLean] filled me in on, as well as the forensic details.”
On his website garybraver.com, Goshgarian said people live in a culture that “reveres” the young and “discards” the old. This theme of youthful beauty, Goshgarian said, plays a large role in the novel.
As Markarian confronts his own demons, his estranged wife considers plastic surgery when she finds herself unable to get a job in a youth-centric culture, he said.
The idea for the plastic surgery theme came to Goshgarian as he was flipping through channels one day. He said his attention was caught by a woman crying to the TV personality Dr. Phil because she did not look like Jessica Simpson, despite the 18 cosmetic procedures she had undergone. Goshgarian said this almost-30-year-old woman perfectly represented the obsession with beauty and youth he sees in our culture.
To research this obsession with plastic surgery, Goshgarian said he was lucky enough to enlist the aid of Robert Goldwyn, former dean of cosmetic surgery at Harvard, who he said spent hours talking about medical ethics and walking him through various surgical procedures.
“One of the things that [Goshgarian] does that I really like is the way he’ll take an issue, like the plastic surgery and other contemporary issues, and kind of build the whole story around it,” said writing professor Barbara Shapiro. “While there’s a thriller going on, there’s also an investigation of some moral contemporary issue.”
Northeastern alumnus Kyle Kerr, who is friends with Goshgarian, said he particularly enjoyed the retrospective focus on the villain in “Skin Deep.”
“It has this flashback storyline to it about a kid that has this weird relationship with his stepmother,” Kerr said. “It’s kind of literary within this thriller novel. It’s a nice break from the police procedurals.”
Goshgarian said he feels this kind of storytelling is one of the main strengths of the novel.
“You don’t know who the villain is, you don’t know his name … but I tried to dramatize the forces that made him do the bad stuff in the present,” he said. “So in a sense, I wanted the readership to understand, maybe even empathize with the abuse that he had suffered as he grew up.”
Kerr and Shapiro both said “Skin Deep” is Goshgarian’s best book yet.
Goshgarian said the novel is currently being considered for a film adaptation by Stone Village Productions. Although a few of Goshgarian’s past novels have been optioned for the big screen, none have made it yet. Goshgarian said he is “keeping his fingers crossed” this time.
Goshgarian said he will be signing books and speaking to fans Oct. 18 at noon in the Northeastern bookstore. There will also be an event Nov. 13 at 6 p.m. in 90 Snell Library at which Goshgarian said he will be talking about the book and signing.