SEPTEMBER 21, 2014
I STARTED READING Broken Monsters the night before leaving on a 10-day trip that encompassed two weddings and three cities. I enjoyed this trip greatly, but I spent a significant amount of time wishing I were alone in my room, tearing through this book the way it was meant to be enjoyed: with urgency and eyes wide open Clockwork Orange –style, the better to absorb this beautiful nightmare.
Broken Monsters is a big, ambitious, compelling novel. Lauren Beukes is a genre bender, which is the term assigned to authors who write novels driven by character, theme, and striking prose, and which happen to feature some outsized genre elements. Beukes’s last two novels both feature serial killers, so they’re not exactly quiet contemplations on the fragility of human relationships or, you know, people putting down dish towels and thinking about their childhoods. Last year’s The Shining Girls was about a serial killer who travels through time, targeting women across 20th-century Chicago. Having recommended this book left and right, I’ve found that the premise raises eyebrows among genteel readers. I think I know why.
For one, serial killers can be pretty garish characters. A lurid story doesn’t need to be well written in order to appeal to the average reader. (I say this from experience as a person who’s spent plenty of hours devouring the true crime reporting of the Wikipedian mob.) Beukes’s novels are loaded up with bold plotting and sensational details, but her writing is so strong that you can’t accuse her of trashiness. An author of Beukes’s ability can write about anything, including the fascinating extremes of human behavior.
And Broken Monsters isextreme. It cold opens with the first of several dead bodies, the work of a murderer with some grotesque artistic designs. The victim is a black 11-year-old boy, and his torso has been fused with the bottom half of a deer. He’s been arranged inside a tunnel, where he is meant to be found and appreciated. The unused halves of boy and deer are creepily missing.
Gabriella Versado is the lucky homicide detective helming the case. She’s a sharp, dedicated member of the Detroit Police Department, as well as a divorced single mother to a teenage daughter, Layla. Broken Monsters has an ensemble cast, but Gabi is the primary protagonist, an imperfect but kick-ass heroine who powers through a taxing investigation while putting out multiple fires at home. Layla’s coming-of-age requires considerable parental attention: it starts with a Chris Hansen–style trap for a chatroom pedophile, and it gets wilder and more dangerous from there.
Layla might benefit from having around-the-clock parental supervision, but Gabi has to balance her home life with her very demanding job. She runs the Bambi case (as it is quickly and inevitably nicknamed) with exacting competence and tireless commitment, directing a team of officers, most of them male, some a bit bitter that this high-profile murder ended up in the hands of a Latina woman. (Gabi is a “threefer,” according to her colleagues — female, minority, and kind of hot.) If you enjoy the slow burn of a carefully crafted police procedural, you’ll appreciate the day-by-day developments of the Bambi investigation. Gabi and her fellow officers run around chasing every lead they can think of, and it pays off: they identify the body with a savvy search of public records, they interview a taxidermy expert to find out what kind of adhesive can bond human to animal without a visible seam.
The investigation doesn’t depend on the usual crutches of suspense. The whodunit is no mystery to the reader — as in The Shining Girls, Beukes offers both the villain’s identity and inner thoughts from close to page one. The killer, Clayton Broom, is a solitary artist “all eaten up on the inside by the dreaming thing he let into his head that didn’t mean to get trapped here, drawn out by the raw wound of the man’s mind, blazing like a lamp in one of those border places where the skin of the worlds are permeable” — a powerful force that drives him to violence. He is an eerie vessel for a bloody project that seeks to transform Detroit by opening doors to another reality. On the surface, Clayton Broom is a terrifying, twisted serial killer, but Beukes holds us in suspense about a crucial question: is he delusional, or is he some kind of visionary, a vital link to a bizarre, more beautiful world?
Clayton and his dream require an audience. In this sense, Clayton is not too different from real attention-seeking serial killers like the Zodiac Killer or the BTK Strangler. Gabi and her team recognize this goal right away, and one of the challenges of the investigation is keeping the bodies hidden and minimizing leaks to the media. When she and another officer discover Bambi, she warns him, “And don’t even think about taking any pictures on your phone to show your buddies. […] We’re going to contain this.” Beukes’s omniscient voice cuts in to end the scene: “They do not remotely contain it.”
Gabi’s biggest pain in the ass is a pseudo-journalist named Jonno Haim, a 37-year-old listicle writer whose internal monologue includes the phrase “eau de pussy.” With the encouragement of his new DJ girlfriend Jen Q, Jonno starts covering the Detroit art scene on YouTube. When Clayton insists on presenting murder as an art form, Jonno becomes obsessed with sharing the work of the Detroit Monster (Clayton’s media nickname) with the world, feeding prurient interests while raising his own questionable journalistic profile.
Both Clayton and Jonno seek mass attention and virality, while Gabi, her police team, and her daughter struggle to maintain boundaries with the outside world. “This is the way the world is now,” Layla observes. “Everything is public. You have to find other people who understand.” The key player in this clash between public and private is the internet, the constant in our lives that contemporary novelists are so prone to ignore or mishandle. Much has been made of writers, particularly crime writers, presenting city as character — we have Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, David Simon’s Baltimore, et cetera — but few writers have attempted to lend such dignified status to the internet. But the internet is, in fact, a place with its own citizens, its own rules, its own capacity for sin and community and chaos. Though it’s been changing lives for years, writers are still timid about incorporating it into fiction.
Broken Monsters is worth reading for this alone. The internet is a driving force in the plot, as well as part of the normal background of our 2014 lives. SpinChat (Chatroulette), UpFeed (BuzzFeed/Upworthy), and Reddit (Reddit) make appearances; there’s even a chapter in the form of an Ask Me Anything thread. This sort of thing can be too cute in the wrong writer’s hands — but Broken Monsters is not cute. If anything, the seamless use of the internet adds a level of authenticity to the novel that makes all the crazy scary things that happen hit that much harder.
The internet also intensifies the pandemonium in Detroit, as the local panic and widespread attention feed off of each other in an endless loop. The world loves to gawk at this city, “the number one Death-of-America pilgrimage destination” — I’ll check right now, and yes: a BuzzFeed article with the headline “Insane Pictures Of The Detroit Metropolitan Area Underwater After Severe Thunderstorms.” This novel, with its themes of urban American decay and rebirth, only makes sense in its chosen setting. The gutted nature of Detroit allows for sinister hidden spaces; the sinister hidden spaces facilitate violent crime; violent crime keeps police busy; the police are then too overworked to chase artists; artists congregate in Detroit to pursue art forms that might attract police attention in other cities; these art forms, such as street art and sometimes sculptures made of things that might be human, start covering the gutted city.
It’s worth noting that Beukes is a white South African woman with no preexisting ties to Detroit. Broken Monsters is a master class in writing outside your experience, a skill that many writers are extremely hesitant to exercise. Beukes writes about Detroit with authority and confidence, and her representations of characters of color (and there are many of them, thank God) are thought out and multidimensional, depicted without hesitation or preciousness.
She is a writer of many talents, and they are all on full display in this book. Just the other day, I recommended Broken Monsters to a writer finishing a literary novel told in five different narrative voices. There are few writers who couldn’t learn from Beukes. I certainly am not one of them.