Kirby should be dead.
Harper shouldn't exist.
Something has to give.
“It’s not my fault. It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”
Laruen Beukes' genre-bending thriller is something of a gift to those who like to play with convention. Its at once a very well done serial killer novel and at the same time a tense modern fantasy involving time travel and layers of connected reality. And just to add the icing on the cake, there's a hint of haunted-house shenanigans thrown in for good measure.
Unlike, say, Warren Ellis's Gun Machine, which downplayed the more potentially SF or fantasy elements hinted at in the plot, The Shining Girls runs unapologetically with its high-concept and winds up a very satisfying, complete experience.
Harper Curtis begins his killing career in the 1930's. Like any respectable killer, he has an obsession with trophies, But in his case the trophies and the kills are communicated by the place where he lives, through a network of intimate connections only he can understand. The house helps him to find the Shining Girls he is so desperate to kill; women of potential scattered through the decades whose light he must extinguish. Its a strange and terrible existence that Harper comes to accept, and even to enjoy.
Until he meets Kirby.
She shouldn't survive. But she does. And she becomes obsessed with the man who tried to kill her, especially when she notices a pattern of killings that go back decades. Determined to find the truth no matter where it takes her, Kirby's journey takes her to places she never expected and tests her own courage, determination and ingenuity.
Buekes's simple but effective prose pulls the reader through a complex, twisting plot that snakes through the pages with a fierce intensity. Its a plot that allows its characters - especially Kirby - to shine on several occasions, and after a while the initially unsettling time travel aspect of the novel feels utterly natural as much to the reader as it does to Harper. There's an explanation in there for what's happening, but its implied more than its explained, and that works in the novel's favour. We fill in the blanks. We get the impression, and we know as much or as little as the characters do, except since we're seeing everything from different perspectives we can figure things out that perhaps they can't.
Maybe that makes it light on the SF front, perhaps closer to a kind of urban fantasy, but in the context of the story what matters is the relationship (however distant) between hunter and prey. Kirby's quest to figure out why she was spared, and Harper's slow realisation that something in his (or is it his?) plan has gone horrible wrong are what matter here, and although at first their stories seem to happen quite separately, you know that they're on a collision course. And that only one of them will survive.
Of course, one story is slightly more compelling than the other. Harper - as well written as his sequences are and as horribly deranged as he is - suffers a little next to Kirby. While Kirby is master of her own fate, is the one who forces her own story forward, there is perhaps a feeling that Harper is more along for the ride. Of course, that's precisely the point, but it does mean that he doesn't develop quite as strongly as Kirby. From his initial surprise at his situation, he quickly becomes accustomed to his new life as a killer, seeking out his trophies and his victims. However, Harper's sequences are enlivened by great period detail and the roadblocks hurled in his path, particularly as he adapts to new times and places, to customs, ideals and people. But there is little change in him from beginning to end, at least in comparison to Kirby.
Kirby, on the other hand, feels incredibly dynamic. Its clear from the start that even in a straight thriller, she'd be a standout, coming across a little like a less frumpy version of Denise Mina's Paddy Meehan (she's a young woman in the 90's looking to make her bones as a reporter, working her way up from intern to try and score a big story). She's funny, determined and just flawed enough to be empathetic. She's not always right, but you want her to be so. There's a great scene later in the book where she confronts one of Harper's victim's mothers, taking entirely the wrong tack. You're wincing, because you know what she needs to do, but she manages to mess it up in a way that's horribly relateable. Like her newsroom mentor, Dan, you come to like Kirby, even if she does tend to leap before she looks.
In short, The Shining Girls is an inventive and intriguing twist on the serial killer novel, with a great pace, a refreshingly empathetic protagonist and a neat line in period detail from across the decades. Its as much a time trip through Chicago as it is a thriller. Its a playful, occasionally violent, always compelling and more importantly intelligent novel that fully deserves to find fans of all genre stripes.
Russel D McLean for crimescenecotland, 28/02/13