Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
South African writer Lauren Beukes had a hit with last year’s The Shining Girls, the story of a serial killer who could travel through time. Readers of both time travel novels and serial killer thrillers loved the way Beukes melded the two genres. Beukes has again given us a genre-bender with Broken Monsters. Both a horror novel and a police procedural, Broken Monsters is even better than The Shining Girls.
Broken Monsters is set in Detroit — today’s Detroit, bankrupt yet defiant, down on its luck but searching luck out wherever it can be found. The arts community seems to be especially thriving in this down-at-the-heels city, and it is a desire to make art that is the foundation of all the problems that are visited upon the victims of an especially perverse serial killer. The first body found isn’t even a complete body; it’s the top half of a ten-year-old child glued to the bottom half of a deer, as if the perpetrator expected the boy to dance away like a faun. Gabriella Versado — Gabi — is the homicide detective assigned to the case, working with a rookie uniformed officer, Marcus Jones, who can’t handle the stench of severed intestines of two different species. Gabi is intent on containing the story, but the whole city soon knows that a child has been killed, and it is up in arms over the seeming inability of the police to solve the crime.
Gabi’s life is complicated by her 15-year-old daughter, Layla, one of the most vibrant characters in the book. Layla isn’t happy that her parents are divorced and that her father has a brand new family thousands of miles away in Georgia. She always had a parent at home when her folks were married, because they worked different shifts, but now she seems to never hear from her father and never see her mother. She hangs with her best friend — basically her only friend — Cassandra Holt, known as Cas, who is white to Layla’s Hispanic and African-American mix, which doesn’t make the slightest difference to the two of them. Both are involved in theater, but it’s not the only thing they get into; with Cas as the leader, they tease boys on sex sites on the internet, and even decide to bait a pedophile by pretending to be even younger than they are. They are in way over their heads, and they don’t know it. Beukes makes them so real that the book lights up even more brightly when either of them is on the page.
Not that the other characters are mere sketches; quite the contrary. TK — Thomas Keen — is a homeless man who hustles for what he needs to keep body and soul together. He does his best to be polite to everyone, even those who scream at him for various offenses, like waiting on the curb as an evicted family packs to leave, hoping to find something left behind that he can sell. His friend Ramón is his dogsbody, the guy he looks out for and winds up giving the best stuff to. Both are recovering alcoholics, down on their luck but determined to climb back up to middle class life — or at least to stay alive for another day, another week, another month.
Jonno Haim is a failed writer who has moved to Detroit from New York, hoping to start fresh. A hipster who doesn’t know he’s a hipster, he makes his living off other hipsters, mocking them with the listicles he composes for different internet websites. He’s hooked up with Jen Q, for whom he falls fast and hard, and together they’re working on a YouTube channel about the murders Gabriella is working on.
Then there’s Clayton Broom, an artist who has worked in different media for years — paint, welding, clay, whatever he can use to make the visions in his head. And there’s the thing that comes to inhabit his body, using his limbs to create its own sort of art.
Beukes skillfully weaves the individual stories of these characters into a whole that is greater than the sum of all its fascinating parts. She guides us through high school, the Detroit art scene, the daily life of the homeless, and the process, politics and procedures of the police who are trying to catch a serial killer before he can strike again. All of the subplots come together beautifully; everything adds color, nothing is extraneous. Even though the reader knows who the serial killer is throughout the novel — or at least, whose human body the killer occupies — Beukes creates tension that keeps the reader reading on long after midnight. The culmination of the plot at an abandoned auto parts factory is hair-raising.
Broken Monsters is one of the best books of the year. I can’t wait to see what Beukes does next.
When I read Terry’s review of Broken Monsters last year, I knew I had to get this book. Lauren Beukes’s earlier horror novel, The Shining Girls, was compelling and original, and Broken Monsters does not disappoint. More than a terrifying horror novel, it’s a study of a collapsing city and its inhabitants.
The setting is our world, in a Detroit, Michigan that has caved into bankruptcy. Derelict houses, mostly foreclosures, stand in row after row in some neighborhoods. (A police detective, in the morgue, comments on the bodies on the tables as “foreclosed humans.”) The city is offering tax incentives and cheap rent to start-up companies to lure back businesses, while multi-acre auto-manufacturing plants stand long vacant, littered with broken machinery and vermin. In the heart of this blighted – I’m tempted to say “hopeless” – city a growing art movement thrives.
Beukes brings together a handful of characters as each one reacts to the horrifying discovery of the mutilated corpse of a child. Gabrielle Versado and her rookie partner Marcus Jones are assigned to investigate the murder. TK, a homeless man who has appointed himself the unofficial guardian of the other homeless in his neighborhood, tries to keep his friends safe from the murderer and the other dangers of Detroit streets. Jonno Haim is a failed journalist, struggling to make a living as a blogger. He has come to Detroit to record human misery, which resonates with his own. Jen Q, a DJ, appoints herself his guide through the growing Detroit art world. Gabrielle’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Layla, a theater geek, finds herself more and more neglected since her parents’ divorce, and with her friend Cas has taken to trolling the internet and baiting pedophiles. Clayton Broom, one step up from a street person himself, struggles to express his art but never quite reaches the art crowd, or anyone except maybe Betty, the woman who runs a neighborhood art center.
And then there is a dream: connection. It creates works of “art” that are fascinating and horrible, because it uses human beings as its medium.
Beukes expertly balances gritty, realistic police work, the political realities of a high-profile case, with the psychedelic strangeness of the killings. The cops find strange things at the scenes with the bodies (in one case, exotic flowers). As the book continues, however, the reader hears so many stories of the random weirdness in Detroit that it is hard, at first, to figure out just what is going on with the murders.
The two most vivid characters are the teenagers, Layla and Cas, who are walking closer to the edge of the abyss each day. Cas’s breezy manner and self-confidence hide a deep psychic wound. I don’t have children, but when Layla and Cas were on their vigilante mission, I felt a combination of terror, exasperation and admiration that I think is what a real parent would feel in that situation. Layla confronts a pedophile not once but twice, never really thinking about possible consequences – not even the consequences of facing an adult male taller and stronger than she is. And that isn’t even the scariest part of the book.
Doors are a big theme in this book, as with The Shining Girls. In Broken Monsters, the first set of doors are merely chalk drawings, but they become more literal as the story progresses. Camera phones, live-streaming and the internet are all portals. Beukes uses the door imagery deftly.
“Don’t go yet, you haven’t opened the door,” Ramon says, his voice plaintive through the giant paper head. He is the only one who is not changing. The rest of his friends are spasming, falling on to all fours, pushing their haunches up into the air. Their bones crack and their skulls stretch out as they give birth to the wild dogs that have always lived inside them, wriggling out of their humanity.
The climax takes place, appropriately, in an abandoned auto factory.
Broken Monsters is not only a good read, it is a dense book, packed with ideas; there are thoughts about the internet (good and bad), and the weird opposites of our instantly-public lives versus crushing social isolation. Despite the terror of the climactic scene and the deaths of people I had come to care about, there was hope and optimism at the end of the book. There is a sense of transformation, not only among the individuals but for the city itself. This is not only a scary horror novel and a powerful comment on our society. It’s a generous view of Detroit, a city with the strength to pull itself back from the abyss. Beukes captures terror, beauty and resilience in this horror novel.