Written by Lauren Beukes — Detroit always has the potential to be a compelling backdrop to a crime novel, and in the hands of the wildly inventive Lauren Beukes this decaying city becomes a bad dream.
The South African writer made her name with science fiction novels – smart cyberpunk debut Moxyland and the Arthur C Clarke Award-winning Zoo City – before turning to the more commercial crime field with The Shining Girls (although it did feature time travel). For a large chunk of this book, Broken Monsters is a character-driven police procedural – but there’s also an undercurrent of weirdness. Her genre swap has seen Beukes take crime into a fantastical new direction, while gaining a wider reach for her rich and imaginative storytelling.
A novel set in the most dangerous city in America – Motor City has become Murder City – could be remorselessly bleak and there’s a good deal of horror in Broken Monsters. The first victim of the serial killer is an 11-year-old boy who’s been transformed in death. While his upper body is intact, his legs have been replaced with those of a deer. It’s a bizarre and horrible scene, although that doesn’t prevent the cops – with typical black humour – calling the victim Bambi until they can identify him.
Some readers may relish the sickness at the heart of the investigation, but what makes this a supremely readable book is the sardonic humour Beukes brings to jaded detective Gabi Versado and blogger and New York exile Jonno Haim, who’s come to loathe his ‘listicle’ brand of journalism that just about paid the rent. For an author known for her online presence, Beukes is bitingly funny about the deadening dependency of social media, while the captive audience for the internet ultimately has a role to play in the horror unleashed on Detroit.
While the occasional use of social media excerpts gives this a highly contemporary feel, the killer’s taxidermy-style trademark is an echo of HG Wells’s chilling science fiction novel The Island of Dr Moreau. In Broken Monsters, the dead animal-human hybrid is the work of a crank artist called Clayton Broom, who believes he can access another dimension through his terrifying creations; the scary thing is he may be right. Back in the earthly realm, detective work throws up the unexpected name of Heston Blumenthal. It turns out his imaginative cookery techniques could provide a clue to Bloom’s exhibits.
While some authors revel in the checklist of tics with serial killers who become anti-heroes, Beukes is clearly more interested in portraying the flawed humanity in this broken city. As well as the wickedly funny Jonno, she also involves single mum Gabi’s teenage daughter in the investigation. The mother-daughter relationship is crucial to a story in which social media is out of control, a key theme that also plays a part in Megan Abbott’s new novel The Fever.
Detroit is, of course, a tragic presence in Broken Monsters. A recovering alcoholic called TK provides us with an insider’s account of the urban blight, while Jonno and his DJ girlfriend trawl the vast industrial wastelands in search of stories. He discovers that the painful death of the American Dream here has been told before, while the media has become inured to cases such as the man shot by a neighbour for failing to return a lawnmower. But Jonno’s burgeoning video-blogging career in Detroit is timely given there’s a serial killer on the loose. And then there are the graffiti doors that keep popping up – and might even lead somewhere if you believe in them.
As well as creating captivating characters who deliver whip-smart dialogue, Beukes’s satirical approach makes you better understand the connected world we live in. She also pulls off a game-changing plot manoeuvre late on that had me gasping in admiration. Broken Monsters is certainly a curious beast of a book – a hybrid of crime and cosmic horror with a mordant sense of humour. But if you embrace Beukes’s terrifying vision of 21st century America you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Broken Monsters is published on 31 July. You can watch the trailer and order the book below. And, you can see some of the book’s pre-release PR swag here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars