Serial killers leave me cold. And it's not just because they relentlessly slaughter defenseless human beings; that, of course, is a definite turnoff, but we often have to put up with unpleasant proclivities in our friends and relatives, do we not?
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My objection has to do with the way serial killers are depicted in novels, films and TV shows: They're generally portrayed as intellectually superior people who harbor deep, conscience-crushing wounds inflicted in childhood. They are, that is, interesting. Their minds work in fascinating and original ways. Fiction gives us access to those minds, and we watch, horrified but intrigued, as they indulge in acts of splashy, premeditated violence and then go out and enjoy a sumptuous dinner. Or push a child on a swing. Or read a book.
Real serial killers, or so I am reliably informed by law enforcement personnel, aren't interesting at all. They're pathetic. They're sick, shallow individuals who have achieved very little in their lives, and seek to right the balance by destroying the lives of others — especially women. The fact that there is a pattern to their mayhem doesn't make them evil geniuses. They're still bums. They're still low-rent losers.
Yet serial killer fiction marches on with a fiendish flourish. The latest entry is "The Shining Girls," a novel by Lauren Beukes that joins a lurid roll call of books such as "The Night of the Hunter" (1953) by Davis Grubb, books that make art out of the agony inflicted by systematic predators. Grubb's work is a neglected American classic; along with the creation of a creepy villain allegedly based on a real-life serial killer, the novel is a superb, disturbingly visceral portrait of Depression-era Appalachia.
"American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis was controversial when the stylishly gory novel was published in 1991 but nowadays is generally lauded as a masterpiece of anti-consumerist satire. The Hannibal Lecter novels of Thomas Harris are dazzlingly eloquent. Lisa Gardner's serial-killer series, including novels such as "The Third Victim" (2001), also are skillfully wrought.
But here's the rub: When good writers write about serial killers, they make the serial killers too appealing. They make them seem dashingly diabolical. Fetchingly foul. And don't even get me started on TV series such as "Dexter" and "Hannibal," which concoct a perverse beauty from the bloody machinations of monsters.
The heartening thing about "The Shining Girls" is that its serial killer, Harper Curtis, is gray, grubby and unappealing. He's no Hannibal Lecter. In fact, Lecter wouldn't give Curtis a second look, except perhaps to sneer disdainfully at his mismatched clothes and soiled neck. This is not to suggest that "The Shining Girls" is realistic — it's about a time-traveling serial killer, a theme that stretches scientific plausibility so far that you fear the snap-back from the metaphorical rubber band — but only to say that Beukes is true to the basic nature of a career criminal, a nature that is greedy and seedy and opportunistic. Not scintillatingly brilliant and alluringly damaged.
When Curtis stumbles upon a ramshackle house that enables him to move back and forth in time, he's off and running — or rather, off and killing. And to what kind of victim is this scruffy miscreant drawn? Young women of promise and bravado: the shining girls of the book's evocative title. Among the brightest is Kirby Mazrachi, the book's unforgettable heroine. She and Curtis tangle throughout the decades, in vivid, terrifyingly effective scenes.
Indeed, Beukes is a marvelous writer, and her prose is fluid and assured. Her employment of the present tense makes the novel hum with immediacy: "It's that kind of day, crisp and clear, on the cusp of fall. The trees have mixed feelings about it; leaves showing green and yellow and brown all at the same time." Even her abstractions hit the skin with a knife-flick intensity: "Fear festers in the imagination. It's not fear's fault. That's just the way it's made."
There is also a sly and subterranean poetry to "The Shining Girls," a poetry that never gets in the way of its gritty, remorseless plot. At one point Kirby pauses in a conversation with Dan Velasquez, a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who helps in her quest, and Beukes describes the pause thusly: "It's the glass teetering on the edge of the desk, fighting against gravity. The thing about gravity is that it wins every single time."
"The Shining Girls" is set in Chicago, but that's the least effective part of the book; the city's landscape and salient facts of its history seem to be sprinkled in for flavor rather than woven into the deep fabric of the story. Beukes, who lives in Capetown, South Africa, did her homework, and her careful deployment of places and events — you'll come across Wrigley Field and Lake Michigan and the rest of the Windy City Hit Parade — would satisfy any fact-checker. But books aren't written for fact-checkers.
The power of "The Shining Girls" comes not from its geography but from the audacious imaginative vision of its author. Beukes takes a time-worn genre known for prettifying the ugliest thing in the world — the serial-killer novel — and gives it a sci-fi twist while infusing it with bleak reality. From something horrific and inexplicable, she makes delicate and redemptive magic.
The paperback edition of Julia Keller's novel "A Killing in the Hills" was published in June.
"The Shining Girls"
By Lauren Beukes, Mulholland, 384 pages, $26