The Shining Girls' time travelling serial killer leaves unsatisfying hole
By Lauren Beukes. Mulholland, 384 pp, hardcover
Everybody loves a good villain. Psychopaths from television’s antihero Dexter to The Dark Knight’s ruthless and compelling Joker have reached iconic heights due to our insatiable appetite for the deliciously dangerous. Harper Curtis, the time-travelling serial killer in Lauren Beukes’s latest cross-genre novel, The Shining Girls, is no such villain. Harper’s narrative pulls the plot’s loose, time-hopping threads together, but his character is consistently flat and colourless. We’re not meant to empathize with Harper, and his lack of charisma or intellect makes him downright pitiful—and rightfully so.
In Depression-era Chicago, Harper sneaks into a decrepit house he finds empty—except for the mysterious dead body lying on the floor. “The House”, described as “no-man’s land”, has the names of future victims scrawled in Harper’s handwriting next to mysterious artifacts (e.g. a lighter, a toy pony) strung on the bedroom wall. Don’t hold your breath for a logical motivation here. The House—a portal to other times—awaits Harper as a sort of perverted destiny (a notion Beukes flirts with throughout): “He can’t always tell if his thoughts are his own or if the House is
deciding for him,” she writes.
It’s the female murder victims that shine here, in more ways than one, but the inclusion of so many diverse characters—from a 1930s radium-painted burlesque dancer to a 1970s pro-choice activist expectant of Roe v. Wade—has Beukes bogged down by her own ambition, making many otherwise captivating women forgettable. Kirby Mazrachi, an intelligent, feisty ’90s punk reminiscent of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander is the one that got away, escaping a gruesome attack apt to elicit a visceral response from even the toughest of stomachs. Kirby and an ex–homicide reporter form an unlikely friendship—as all best crime-fighting duos do—during her internship at the Chicago Sun-Times, a thinly veiled excuse to unravel the mystery of her vintage killer and do some hunting of her own.
Time travel is reduced to a gimmick, which is surprising given sci-fi writer Beukes has already cut her teeth with 2008’s Moxyland and the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award–winning Zoo City. Beukes creates fascinating, well-researched historical snapshots of Chicago from 1929 to 1993, but we never fully realize how exactly a serial killer is playing leapfrog through the decades, thereby leaving an unsatisfying hole in a pretty cool premise.