Harper, the anti-hero of Lauren Beukes’s terrific novel The Shining Girls, is a killer. He chooses his victims when they are just girls, giving them something special – a toy, something that glitters, a hair decoration — and speaking with them as if he is a friend, even introducing himself. Sometimes he finds it hard to control his violence during these visits, thinking about how easily he could kill them then and there, as well as the nauseating details of how he would do it. Then, when the girls are in their twenties or a bit younger, Harper returns to them and dispatches them, making a clean escape every time. He leaves behind a souvenir, an artifact from another victim. And he is nearly impossible to catch.
The reason he is able to visit his victims as children, find them again as adults, and elude capture, is that he has a time portal. He happens upon it accidentally in 1931, when he breaks into a boarded-up and condemned house in Chicago. He kills the occupant of the house and discovers its odd properties. More, he finds the proper dress and currency for other times. And he finds the room in which the history of the shining girls of the title — the girls he will kill — has been documented in his own handwriting. We never learn the origins of this room or this house, or how the time portal works, but we don’t really need that information. What we need to know is that Harper is a psychopath who has just stumbled onto a means to commit serial murder that is just about perfect.
One of Harper’s victims is Kirby. But he messed up with her; she survived, her toughness serving her well. In 1992, she’s a college student who is interning with the Chicago Sun-Times, using her position with the newspaper to investigate her own attempted murder. She is assigned to Dan Velasquez at her request. Dan is a sports reporter, which ought to make it hard to get access to information about murders, but Dan used to be a homicide reporter and Kirby has done her homework. Right up front she makes it clear that she doesn’t care how the Cubs are doing, or even know the first thing about baseball. She’s only asked for Dan because there were no internships with homicide reporters available. Dan covered her attempted murder, and he becomes intrigued with her search for her would-be murderer — and with her.
The Shining Girls seesaws from Kirby’s viewpoint to Harper’s and back again, and throws in a few more viewpoints from time to time. Beukes is careful to keep us oriented by heading each chapter with the name of the viewpoint character and the date, so that the reader is never left scratching her head to try to figure out where and when she is (a flaw of many novels about time travel). The characterization is sharp, especially as to Kirby; she is not the standard loveable heroine of many tales, but a young woman who is determined to get what she wants and not particularly concerned about what she needs to do to get it. I enjoyed her strength and determination, even as her hardness became more apparent.
But the real star of this book is the meticulous plotting. We follow Harper as he hops around in time, committing a murder now and a murder then, leaving clues that make no real sense to the police. Better, we follow Kirby as she unravels the Gordian knot of these crimes, making connections that make no temporal sense (how can the police explain a Jackie Robinson baseball card left at a murder scene years before Robinson was in the major leagues?), but following the clues where they lead her, no matter how impossible the solution might seem. Beukes dances us through this complicated scenario with seeming ease; I spotted no missteps that might trip up either a thriller reader or a science fiction reader.
The Shining Girls is an exciting blending and mashing of genres. I expect that science fiction, fantasy and horror readers are more likely to be satisfied with this book that thriller readers, as there is no mystery about who the bad guy is and no real suspense about what the climax of the book will be. The joy here is in watching it all unfold, in seeing how the clues link up and lead Kirby to an impossible solution. And it’s a considerable joy; The Shining Girls was one of the best books of 2013.