The serial killer genre is known to make use of specific tropes. The killer usually suffered trauma in their childhood to make them into the murder machine they are today. The victims are normally helpless to prevent their deaths and the killer is always brilliant and meticulous. These stories can be entertaining up to a point. But when every character becomes saddled with cliches then it’s time for something new. So, what about a novel that breaks away from the traditional journey of the serial killer genre? South African novelist Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls takes something we’ve seen before and offers a new slant.
The book is set in Chicago and follows the exploits of a 1920s depression era vagabond Harper Curtis. His mission is to kill the ‘shining girls.’ They are girls who show potential and he is determined to snuff their light out. He stumbles across a house that allows him to travel through time and stalk his targets through the span of their lives.
This immediately turns the character into a greater threat than your average run of the mill slasher. Harper isn’t refined like Hannibal Lecter. He doesn’t have a cult like Charles Manson. He’s opportunistic, conniving and a thoroughly unpleasant man that the reader isn’t meant to root for. He has no redeeming qualities or anything charming to offer that will allow us to feel anything but contempt. Beukes doesn’t glorify her killer but brings the reader face to face with the brutality of what truly damaged individuals are capable of.
For as successful as Harper becomes with his crusade there’s the ‘one that got away.’ Kirby Mazrachi survives the attempt on her life. She begins investigating similar attacks and turns from the hunted into the hunter. She’s sarcastic, plucky and flawed in her own right based on her horrifying experience. The human condition is brought to bear in a hard way in Kirby’s single-minded quest for revenge.
The concept of time travel brings in a supernatural element that adds an extra layer of horror. The house is treated as a force of nature that bends whoever enters it to its will. The narrative spans over five decades of Chicago’s history. Anyone from the area will be impressed by Buekes’ attention to detail.
The Shining Girls deviates from what fans of the genre typically expect. The narrative is enriched with separate tales as each of Harper’s victims are given their moments to ‘shine.’ When you’ve read it from start to finish it won’t be hard to see why the book was in the middle of a vicious war between publishers.
The book is available on Amazon.