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Beneath Her Skin
C.S. Porter’s debut detective novel sets serial killers loose on a small town in Nova Scotia, and conjures a flinty, enigmatic protagonist who is as much predator as prey / BY Kim Honey / March 18th, 2022
Christopher Porter was out taking photographs in the Annapolis Valley near Kentville, N.S., one brilliant, sunny day, when his eye was drawn to giant round bales of hay dotting the fields. “Everything was perfect,” he says, recalling the bucolic scene in the province’s agricultural heartland, known for its Apple Blossom Festival and burgeoning vineyards. “And I just thought, ‘Oh my god, could you imagine if someone was inside there?”
That germ of an idea sprouted a plot. “Then I had to figure out how to do it and why it would be done, but it intrigued the hell out of me,” the author, who writes as C.S. Porter, says in a phone interview from his house overlooking the sea in Lunenburg, N.S. And that’s exactly how his debut novel, Beneath Her Skin, begins.
In the book, Cooper Harrison is a small-town Nova Scotia cop with a broken marriage trying to mollify Mac, his 14-year-old boy, who is hurting in the wake of his parents’ divorce. They head to the local rod and gun club for a father-son shooting competition, where paper targets are set up on 500-pound rolls of hay. As Mac hits bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye, Harrison sees a blood-red spot on the target and halts the shooting. Not only is there a person folded inside the hollowed-out bale, but the older man is naked, on his knees, with hands and feet bound. And he is dead. Freshly dead. A woman in the next bale is still alive, barely, and airlifted to hospital in Halifax.
Enter the protagonist, Kes Morris, a homicide detective dispatched from the city to help with the investigation, known for her abrupt demeanour, hyper vigilance and reputation for catching killers. This is a woman who can take a man down by herself, and gets up after she is knocked unconscious when a deer trips a wire and detonates a home-made bomb that demolishes a victim’s cabin in the woods.
The medical examiner finds ketamine, likely use as a sedative, in the man’s bloodstream, and suspects he was also given a paralytic drug like Rohypnol, the date-rape drug. But he was very much alive until Mac’s bullet him.
As the body count and gore mounts, Kes relies on Harrison and his colleagues to track the killer or killers. Where Kes is intuitive and tries to get into the psychological mindset of the murderers by “pulling their skin on,” Harrison is the dependable, methodical partner, who “has the instincts of a good detective” and always has evidence bags on him.
Porter’s twisty, taut murder mystery started, as so many novels did, during the pandemic, when he was locked down at home in the picturesque seaside town 100 kilometres south of Halifax where the Bluenose schooner was built in 1920. If you’ve ever been to Lunenburg, it’s easy to spot the landmarks in the novel, even though the town goes unnamed: Harrison lives toward the “back harbour”; Kes passes “an impressive old inn that used to be a sea captain’s house”; and the wealthy tourist town “is proud of its fishing, boatbuilding, and rum-running heritage.”
He never considered setting the book anywhere but his backyard. “I just wanted to celebrate home,” he says. “I lived all over the world, and I’m back here now. I just think it’s so lovely.”
You won’t find any Nova Scotia accents or idioms in the novel – although one character utters a “swears to Jesus,” just the once – because Porter thinks it comes off as “fake and belittling.” He tried it, but didn’t think it read well. “Can you imagine if Kes was going, ‘Oh my Jesus, that’s some good.’”
You will find lots of references to food and cooking, because Porter is a man with a palate who makes his own pizza dough. Kes can always eat scallop pasta or fish chowder, even when on the verge of collapse, while Harrison bakes bread because “it helps me think.”
A former cinematographer and lighting technician, Porter travelled the globe working on movies directed by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) and Jim Jarmusch (Deadman, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), among others. He also took photographs on set and in the surrounding cities, which he has exhibited from Toronto to Istanbul to Los Angeles. Then there was the exotic fibre mill he owned in Lunenburg for eight years, where he spun wool from his own herd of alpacas and goats, and even processed dog and camel hair for clients all over the world. This is very cool, but seems beside the point, until you ask why Harrison’s boss in the novel, Captain Puck, has a spinning wheel in his office.
Writing is the author’s fourth act, but he notes that photography, cinema and words are all tools for telling stories. He quit the movie business – and sold the fibre mill – about eight years ago, after Zed Crew, directed by Noah Pink, wrapped in Zambia. The multiple sclerosis he was diagnosed with in his forties had advanced to the point where he could no longer hack 12- to 14-hour working days. Although he used to swim in the sea and run on trails through the woods with his dogs almost daily in fair weather, he now uses canes to get around. But the images he saw in the forests around Lunenburg are still imprinted on his memory, and made their way into the book. “I can pinpoint exactly where the rod and gun club is and where [victim Brandon] Rakes’ shack is,” he says. “I would’ve run by all those. I’m a photographer, so things stick with me in my mind, like a camera.”
When he’s not whipping up scallop pasta, Porter’s attention is focused on the keyboard. Beneath Her Skin has been well received by critics and readers, which surprised him. He was nervous about putting his words out into the world, and that’s why he chose to create a mystery within a mystery by concealing his identity and writing as C.S. Porter. The book-jacket blurb describes “a solitary writer who lives near the Atlantic Ocean,” then veers mostly into fiction: “It is rumoured that he or she was once involved in crime investigation; that Porter suffered an immense personal loss; that they came from the U.S. or U.K., or grew up in these parts. Age unknown. The author has never been interviewed.” When the book started to gain traction, he realized he couldn’t promote it and retain anonymity.
After reading the compact, 224-page book subtitled “A Kes Morris file,” I was struck by its economical prose, breakneck pace and intricate plot. With Kes, Porter has created a fallible yet fascinating enigmatic character – why does she need opioids to dull her psychic pain, where is her ex and their daughter, and why doesn’t she have custody? – who deserves a series, or at least a second novel. Luckily for the reader, there is one on his computer. He allows that it’s set in Nova Scotia, in a different location, but says he’s “not sure about it yet.”
Then there’s the manuscript Porter’s been working on for years. It’s another novel, “but it’s meant to be quite funny and it’s hard to write funny.” He’s having a tough time with it, “but I’m not going to give it up, that’s for sure.”
I know he’ll solve the problem and get it done, since he admits he’s got a lot of Kes in him. She perseveres, even when cold-blooded, sadistic killers are stalking her. Writer’s angst pales in comparison.