In The Shining Girls, a time-traveling serial killer named Harper Curtis meets Kirby Mazrachi, a young woman who refuses to die.
Stumbling into a house in Depression-Era Chicago that opens into other times, Curtis is compelled to kill young women who are shining with potential, often meeting them as children and telling them that he'll be back. After each killing Curtis simply disappears back into the house and another time period.
Kirby is the last shining girl, the shining girl who survived. She's made a vow to herself to bring her would-be killer to justice and uses her work with Chicago Sun-Times ex-homicide reporter Dan Velasquez towards this goal. The truth-- once she starts homing in on it-- is unbelievable.
I have to admit that I was drawn to this book by its conceit of a time-traveling serial killer. I wanted to see how the author would make this work. She does, but the results are very uneven.
The unevenness begins with the setting. Chicago during many different time periods (beginning with the Depression) would be a marvelous setting for this type of book, and it started out to be here. However, the various Chicago scenes soon felt like two-dimensional stage props, or like name dropping. Instead of bringing me deeper into the story, Chicago was keeping me out.
The characters did the same thing. Curtis the Killer is described as "charming" more than once, but that charm never came across to me. He remained nothing more than a creepy, scary figure in the shadows whom I would hope to face with some sort of real weapon in my hand if we were ever to meet. Kirby, as the survivor who's trying to bring Curtis to justice, should elicit sympathy from readers, but outside of the very well-written and emotional scene where she is attacked and left for dead, she is anything but sympathetic. The experience has turned Kirby into a distrustful girl who keeps the world at bay with the liberal application of sarcasm. Although this would be a natural reaction to such a horrific event, the reader needs to be able to see past that from time to time. Since I couldn't, Kirby and her mission never really came to life.
The only characters who did in fact shine for me were the "shining girls" that Curtis dispatched so quickly. As Kirby researches what clues she can find, we are allowed to glimpse into these victims' lives and know that they would truly have been extraordinary. Along with Kirby's much-maligned dog Houdini, these are the characters who generated enough interest for me to continue to read the book.
There were also two more points in the book that didn't quite make sense to me. One, the house that allowed Curtis to travel back and forth through time needed to be explained a bit more. Readers are allowed to believe that there's something mystical going on, a strange presence of sorts. Perhaps the author felt this was needed in order to explain the time-traveling process, but I think most readers would prefer thinking the house just does it by methods unknown rather than to have the author mention something but never reveal it in more detail. The second point that bothered me was the clues that Curtis would leave behind at each crime scene. They're very distinctive clues that would stand out as "head scratchers" for certain, yet none of the homicide detectives seem to think they mean anything. I don't think seventy or eighty years' worth of detectives would completely overlook something so obvious and so puzzling.
Despite its unevenness, I did enjoy reading The Shining Girls because it's such an interesting concept, and-- as I mentioned before-- the attack scene with Kirby, Curtis, and Houdini the dog is extremely well written. The book just needed more scenes like those.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Mulholland Books © 2013
Hardcover, 384 pages
Source: the publicist