South African writer Lauren Beukes came up with a killer premise for her latest novel, The Shining Girls (Mulholland Books, $26). What if a murderer could travel through time, stalk his victims as children and return to murder them as adults? It’s a gimmick, yes, but also a clever narrative tool. All that time travel allows Buekes to shift dates (from 1930s-era Chicago to the 1990s) and points of view (from murderer to victim and back again) whenever she likes. It’s slightly disorienting in the early chapters, but adds to the suspense of the last 50 pages.
Harper Curtis is a triple threat: gambler, thief and murderer. He’s not that bright, but he’s good with a knife. After Curtis murders a woman and steals her coat, he discovers a house key in the pocket. The house turns out to be a time portal, and Curtis wastes no time exploiting his new power—but that’s not all. One of the rooms is a kind of shrine, with random personal effects (a baseball card, a toy horse, a lighter, butterfly wings) and the names of nine women written on the wall. The women are strangers to Curtis, but the names have been written in his own handwriting. Once Curtis starts traveling in time, he meets these “shining girls”—strong, powerful women with loads of potential and personal spark—and brutally kills them.
A villain who can crisscross decades has an easy time evading the authorities, so any character bold enough to give chase has to be extra clever and determined. Buekes’ heroine, college student Kirby Mizrachi, is deadly serious about catching Curtis. She survived one of Curtis’ savage attacks, and believes she can find him by studying past murders.
Kirby takes an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times where she’s paired with Dan Velasquez. Velasquez is a former crime writer who covered Kirby’s attack but now writes sports stories. Kirby uses her position to access the newspaper’s archives and tries to convince Dan her crazy theories have merit.
Beukes is a seasoned science-fiction writer, and her last novel, Zoo City (2010), won the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award. The Shining Girls is the kind of genre-bending novel that will attract as many mystery readers as science-fiction fans, but be warned: It has flaws. Buekes’ writing is fine and even elegant at times, but many of the supporting characters seem woefully underdeveloped. The relationship that develops between Kirby and Dan feels forced and implausible, and some of the dialogue is just dumb.
Still, sometimes a great idea is enough. Despite its faults, I found The Shining Girls totally entertaining. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a great summer read. ★★☆☆☆
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Recommended by Vegas Seven A&E editor and sixth-generation Texan Cindi Moon Reed.
I grew up studying Texas history. My home state’s public education system—never forgetting the feeling of independence—seemed to prioritize Texas’ story over anybody else’s. Still, nothing I’ve read has brought the Lone Star State’s exhilarating and troubled past to life as vividly and as complexly as Philipp Meyer’s new book, The Son (Ecco, $28). The 576-page epic follows six generations of Texans, starting with the Colonel (who was born on the dawn of the Republic of Texas and was adopted by Comanches) to today (bratty descendants, one with an “addiction to gurus and therapists”). Sharing a similar frontier legacy, Nevadans should enjoy, too.