Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Shining Girls

   Harper Curtis, a violent and mentally disturbed drifter, stumbles into a rundown property in Chicago. The year is 1931. Inside he comes across a case full of money - US dollars in a wide variety of designs and denominations. He finds himself a change of clothes, pockets a handful of the strange notes, opens the front door, and 'steps into sometime else'.
Harper Collins
   Lauren Beukes new novel 'The Shining Girls' is already being touted as the big it-read for this summer. It's a move into new literary territory for Beukes, whose two previous novels - Moxyland and Zoo City - were both resolutely on the urban fantasy shelf. 'The Shining Girls' is a gripping and terrifying crime thriller, featuring one of the creepiest antagonists I've ever read - the above-mentioned Harper Curtis. 
   Harper uses the miraculous, and never-explained, time-travelling powers of 'the House' to help him follow and eventually kill his 'shining girls': girls in whom he sees particular potential, creativity, or genius. He gives each girl a trinket when they are young, and leaves another beside the body when he returns to finish his job many years later. The difficulty for any law enforcement agency investigating any of his crimes between 1929 and 1993 is how to trace a timeline of events when, chronologically speaking, there simply isn't one. Hypothetically (this doesn't feature in the novel), how could a team of profilers trace the evolution of a murderer's modus operandi when he has committed his first murder in 1981 and escalated towards a final and most elaborate murder in 1974. Throughout the novel, I puzzled over how this killer could ever possibly be caught. 
   Harper Curtis' adversary comes in the form of one of his victims. Kirby Mazrachi was the victim of a horrific assault in her late teens, which she only narrowly survived. Fast forward a few years and she talks her way into an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times, assisting Dan Velasquez - the journalist who originally covered her story, now working in the Sports department. They make an offbeat and attractive investigative team as Kirby starts trying to track assaults similar to hers in the greater Chicago area. 
   The novel does have its faults - we never learn anything about Harper's background or motivations, and leaving the reader with nothing to pin it on does a disservice to the full characterisation of Kirby. I really enjoyed reading it, but it's certainly not the best novel I've read this month, let alone this year. But it is a story well worth reading - especially for the many well-researched titbits. In 1931 Chicago, Harper ends up in a hospital bed in the same room as a woman who is slowly dying because of her occupation - she is a dancer, and her show is special because she performs covered in irradiated paint. Harper visits the construction site of the Sears tower in 1972, then returns a day later to 1973 to take the elevator to the top. 
   I look forward to the word of mouth increasing for this one. So far, I've heard about it mostly from the Sci-Fi/Fantasy community and Beukes' previous readership, but it would be a real shame if the words 'time travel' on the cover put the general crime fiction fans off reading 'The Shining Girls'. 


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