Sunday, July 19, 2015

Broken Monsters - Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters is Lauren Beukes' fourth novel. The first two were set in her native South Africa but for the third, The Shining Girls,  she moved to the US. She sticks to the US for this novel, moving from the city of Chicago to Detroit. Although Beukes has clearly outgrown small publisher Angry Robot, I must admit that I miss the South African setting of her first two novels a bit. The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters are fine books in their own right, in terms of writing probably a step up, but there is something about the use of language in those books, as well as the wildly inventive concepts that does not seem to have survived the crossing of the Atlantic. Of course, if you are looking for a supernatural mystery novel, you still couldn't do much better than Broken Monsters.

A monster is on the loose in Detroit. When half of a young boy is found, messily attached to half a fawn, one of the most gruesome cases in Detective Gabi Versado's career begins. In a city that is slowly dying, she has to find a killer who is obsessed with transforming the death around him into art. A race against the clock begins to find him. On top of a killer, Versado also has to contend with a teenage daughter facing her own monsters and a failed writer turned reporter who insists on bringing every gory detail of the murders to the public.

The Detroit of Broken Monsters is indeed about broken things. A failed artist trying to make a career out of the broken remains of his life, writer fleeing his own failures in New York, trying to make a name for himself, a broken family trying to make things work and above all a community of people trying to bring a broken city back to life. Detroit as described in this novel is in a sad state indeed. Bankrupt, rapidly loosing its population and even more rapidly decaying into an industrial wasteland full of ruins that were once the heart of a proud Motor City.

Beukes' mystery is not a whodunit. Early on in the novel it is already quite clear who is responsible for the murders. What Beukes is interested in is the motivation for these killings. Where many novels about serial killers would include a motivation grounded in sick ways of obtaining sexual gratification or sexual frustration as a motive for the killings, Broken Monsters takes another approach. That makes it a refreshing read for a mystery reader. There is something ironic in the way the killer tries to get attention for his 'art' but often manages to achieve exactly the opposite.

Throughout the novel Beukes draws parallels between the attempts of artists to create art out of the abandoned factories of the city and the killer's attempts to create art out of dead things. He sees his art as a way to open a door, to transform imperfect beings into something new. Where the factories do indeed turn into places where their old function transforms into something new, where a new Detroit is born from the ruins of the old, for the artist it turns out to be a bit more complicated.

A motif that Beukes takes with her from her previous novel is the presence of doors. Not the ordinary kind, but the ones that take you from one place to another. Where they involved temporal displacement in The Shining Girls, the door the killer tries to open leads to an even more frightening place. The door motif returns quite often in the street art mentioned in the book. There is even a character who makes a living by opening doors of abandoned buildings to see if there is anything worth salvaging left behind.

Information technology is another element that receives a lot of attention in this novel. Layla, detective Versado's daughter is practically stuck to her phone and lives her life as much online as in the real world. Beukes shows how each mistake shared on the web can have dramatic consequences and how, no matter where you are in the world, it will keep pursuing you. She also shows another side of all this new technology. The failed writer reinvents himself as a journalist and uses relatively cheap equipment and software to follow the murders. In the process he gets in the way of the investigation. These two story lines show both the possibilities and dangers of the Internet. Just like looking through the lens of a camera creates a psychological distance from events taking place right in front of you so does the Internet lure the characters into a false sense of anonymity and security.

As usual with Beukes' books, it is hard to categorize. You could see it as a mystery or thriller, but it also contains elements of urban fantasy and horror. Towards the end the novel becomes increasingly strange, with events for which there doesn't seem to be a rational explanation following each other rapidly leading up to the final showdown that is the climax of the novel. It's something that seems to suit Beukes but depending on what expectations the reader has before reading the novel, reactions will be mixed. The author's mix of genres is both the forte and weakness of this book depending on the reader's preference.

I enjoyed reading Broken Monsters more than I thought I would. It is a very smooth read most of the way. Only early on in the novel, when Beukes rapidly introduces a number of main characters, is the reader's patience tried. It is pleasantly different from her previous novels but also contains some elements that firmly links it to  her older work. Although, as I mentioned in the introduction, I would not mind seeing Beukes return to a South African setting, her attention to detail makes Detroit come alive on the pages. It is, in short, a novel well worth reading, even if it didn't manage to unseat Moxyland as my favourite book by this author.

Book Details
Title: Broken Monsters
Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 520
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-746459-3
First published: 2014


  1. I've had this far down my TBR pile for a while now. I think I'll have to give it a read, I like a mix of murder, mayhem and monsters.

    Great review!

    Heather @ Random Redheaded Ramblings

  2. You will probably like The Shining Girls as well then.