Last year, Lauren Beukes made a huge splash with her stunning time-travelling serial killer novel The Shining Girls. Although this follow-up is also centred on the hunt for a murderer, Broken Monsters is a more complex and challenging tale that sees the author ratchet up her ambition and broaden her scope.
Detroit homicide detective Gabriella Versado is investigating the gruesome murder of a young boy, left on display in a horrifying tableau. Her teenage daughter Layla relies on her confident friend Cas to help her through the struggles of young love and her parents’ separation, but their time spent prowling social media is heading in a dangerous direction.
Jonno is a disgraced New York journalist looking for one last shot, and he thinks he’s found it when DJ Jen Q introduces him to the city’s thriving art scene, where artist Clay is struggling to get his life back on track. While the details of the boy’s murder are kept out of the press, the shockwaves are felt throughout the city, and “abandominium” developer TK begins to sense a disturbing presence in the forgotten neighbourhoods.
While The Shining Girls can easily be pitched on its high concept, Broken Monsters is trickier, as Beukes packs a huge amount into the book’s 500-odd pages. It’s a cliché to say that a novel’s setting is a character but few authors commit themselves to exploring their host city with as much intensity as she does here.
She consciously avoids and criticises Detroit’s ruin-porn tourism and uses the city as a stage for the different social strata of her characters. From the vibrant arts scene (as full of hipster poseurs as genuine talent) to the struggles of the homeless community to the working families trying to get by, Beukes attempts to corral the rich and varied landscape into an orderly narrative. It’s sprawling and occasionally disorienting, but it’s certainly rewarding.
This refusal to pigeonhole the city is mirrored in the novel’s refusal to be limited to any particular sub-genre. On one level it’s a detective story, with the detailed and frustrating nitty-gritty of the police work feeling indebted to The Wire, while the gruesome murder tableaus (including some fascinating details about taxidermy) have the feel of Hannibal about them.
Classifying it purely as a serial killer or crime story does the book a disservice, however. While there are stomach-turning scenes and some bone-chilling horror, some of the novel’s most involving sequences involve Layla and Cas’ exploration of the dangerous world of social media, and Beukes provides fierce and intelligent commentary on the indelible nature of this activity and the shocking reactions that online commenters dole out without any apparent feelings or remorse.
Broken Monsters feels like a slightly less well-oiled machine than The Shining Girls but that novel was a freight train of a thriller. The plot may move a little slowly for some but it’s worth the investment. The characters are beautifully drawn, the growing sense of dread is powerful, and it’s a fiercely intelligent and passionate study of a place, its people and our perception of it. Beukes is challenging herself as much as the reader, and the results are engrossing, thought-provoking and powerful.