Each new novel by Lauren Beukes has propelled her closer to the top of my “To Read ASAP” list. Broken Monsters (2014) may have just landed her at the very top. If Beukes’ early novels categorized her as a masterful tinker of recombinant genre fiction, The Shining Girls showed signs that her work might be breaking away from the more traditional stomping grounds of fantasy and science fiction to a different, wider readership. I think Broken Monsters is further proof of this restless evolution, a tale of urban horror that both honors its genre roots and reaches beyond them into new places.
Set in Detroit, and making great use of its notoriously decaying urban landscape, the story revolves around a grisly and horrifying murder: a young boy is found dead, his torso fused with the body and legs of a deer. Placed in charge of this high-profile investigation is Detective Gabrielle Versado, a tough, competent cop still struggling with divorce and single motherhood. Her search for the killer propels the mystery, but a roster of other well defined and memorable characters orbits that central throughline. Gabrielle’s daughter Layla is adjusting awkwardly to a new school, buoyed only by her friendship with the mysterious, charistmatic Cas. Then there’s Jonno Haim, a starry-eyed and self-centered journalist, who has come to Detroit to start over and make a name for himself. Finally there’s T.K., a homeless man and a casualty of Detroit’s mean streets, struggling to transcend a dark past and make a difference. All of them, in their own way, are negotiating the ruins of the American dream – even as their fates are intertwined with the brutal acts of the killer, who is just as corrupted by his deranged need for fame and fortune.
On its surface, Broken Monsters is a gripping, terrifying mystery – a gritty police procedural tinged with cosmic horror. Its narrative is bracing and confident, and deftly weaves together its viewpoints and subplots in building to a thrilling, scary climax full of eyeball kicks and jaw-dropping WTF moments. But part of what makes it so horrifying is how realistic and timely the subject matter is, its otherworldly horrors rooted so deeply in the every-day horrors of contemporary reality. America on the way down, it suggests, is a terrifying place, and Broken Monsters addresses its problems brilliantly in a patchwork mosaic of astute social commentary. The heedless pursuit of wealth, celebrity, and social media notoriety informs and distorts the lives of everyone involved: the desire to make a mark, to avert a controversy, to break out big. It’s the American dream as toxic, behavior-warping delusion, even as these surfacey motives distract from the larger problems: the ugly undercurrents of racism, sexism, misogyny, corruption, and class warfare bubbling along underneath it all, largely unnoticed, or if so, unchecked. This subject matter is dealt with frankly, and may be triggery in places for some, but in a world in which our intolerance and injustice is regularly exposed by things like Ferguson and Gamergate, it seems only too timely.
Through it all, the characters, flawed as they may be, remain accessible and sympathetic in the face of the increasing horror. Beukes never loses sight of providing engaging, compelling story-telling, even as the passages resonate powerfully with insight about the modern world’s systemic problems. It’s a fine balancing act of compelling entertainment and scathing critique, and, ultimately, a dark and timely work of art.