Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Lauren Beukes
 July 2014
fantasy, crime, horror

I think Lauren Beukes has hit her stride with crime fiction, or at least her distinct brand of crime fiction – a kind of character-driven, urban-fantasy crime thriller with elements of horror. The Shining Girls was like no other crime novel I’d ever read, and now I’m glad to find something similarly fresh but with a totally different story.

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters juggles multiple POVs, a large cast of great characters, and explores the intricacies of an American city (this time it’s Detroit). Beukes uses the killer as a POV character again, which means there’s no mystery as to who he is, but you do have the opportunity to see him work and experience his insanity more intimately. And, like Harper Curtis in The Shining Girls, Clayton Broom is driven by a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control.

This time though, the killer isn’t trying to snuff out brilliance but create art. The figure on the cover of the South African edition is a representation of the body that sets the story in motion – the top-half of a ten-year-old boy, fused to the bottom half of a deer. But the cover achieves what the killer does not – it is art, with a sense of beauty and magic and life. The boy in the novel is dead and butchered and he’s never going to leap like the killer intended.

Detective Gabriella Versado investigates the crime scene after a rookie discovers the body, and she’s put in charge of the case. Gabi is a single mom and has a slightly uneasy relationship with her teenage daughter, Layla. They can get on pretty well, but Gabi’s always working, and Layla is a typically feisty teenager going through more than the usual troubles. Her best friend Cas has cooked up a scheme for trapping an online sex predator, and you just know it’s not going to turn out the way they expect it to.

TK is a homeless guy who survives by scavenging the abandoned buildings of Detroit. He’s a good man who tries to help others and makes an effort to improve himself, but you know that, sadly, he’s never going to get over the rough start he had in life.

Jonno is, in some ways, like his polar opposite. While TK does meaningful work, and makes real connections with people, Jonno made a living as a blogger writing the kinds of clickbait lists we see on the internet everyday: “‘10 Rules for the New Gentleman’s Guide To Dating’ […] It’s all chum to pull in the likes” (57). He recently fucked up his life and his career, and now he’s in Detroit, ransacking the pretentious hipster scene for the edgy content that will rack up enough likes for his ex-girlfriend to notice.

If TK comes across as an unassuming, unrecognised hero, then Jonno is a kind of thoughtless villain. He isn’t the murderer, but when he finds out about the bizarre killings, he sees his chance to become a social media celebrity. He jeopardises Gabi’s investigation in his relentless bid to make the most horrifying, sensational information public, meanwhile spouting bullshit about finding the truth for the sake of the people.

Social media is a major theme in the novel and forms part of the structure of its narrative. Beukes uses chats, texts, Facebook messages and other digital communication – sometimes in text-speak and/or barely coherent ranting. Issues of privacy in a social media age become important plot points and have profound effects on the characters and their relationships.

The novel also happens to be a great police procedural, capturing the realities of being a cop in “The. Most. Violent. City. In. America” (9) and getting into the weirder information required for the investigation, like the meat glue used to fuse the boy and the deer, or the process of taxidermy. Beukes has clearly done her research, and it pays off.

Equally well-crafted are the characters. If shows like True Detective or Broadchurch appeal to you, where the narrative takes its time to develop the characters instead of focusing only on the murder investigation, then you might like Broken Monsters for the same reason.

Rather than give you a general overview, I thought I’d take an in-depth look at a few small details. On the very first page, while Gabi is checking out the body that sets the whole story in motion, we learn a lot about her relationship with Layla. She happens to think about the myth of “mothers and daughters bonding over fat-free frozen yoghurts” and counters it with her own feeling that “the best conversations she has with Layla are the ones in her head” (9).

So there’s a longing for Gabi and Layla to be a cute, quirky mother-daughter pair, perhaps something like the Gilmore Girls, but we’re immediately told that that idea is a fantasy. When we later see Gabi and Layla together, it’s clear that they could make a great team (I love the line “don’t forget the code to the gun safe, beanie, just-in-case” (26)), but there’s always a fundamental disconnect between them.

This is illustrated on the other two pages of the brief opening chapter. The hybrid body reeks, and Gabi is with a rookie cop who is hanging back because of the smell. She offers him some fruity lipgloss that she bought for Layla, to smear on his upper lip:

“Here,” she offers, fishing a small red tub of lipgloss out of her pocket. Something she bought at the drugstore on a whim to appease Layla. A candy-flavoured cosmetic – that’s sure to bridge the gap between them. “It’s not menthol, but it’s something.” (10)

Again, I love what this says about the characters. Gabi is trying to be thoughtful by buying her daughter a little gift, but she doesn’t hesitate to give some of the lipgloss to a colleague. When she later gives it to Layla, her daughter immediately scoffs, pointing out that it’s just a scam and doesn’t do your lips any good. At the same time though, she’s thinking about how she’d actually like to use some of the lipgloss. A few lines later, she complains rudely that she doesn’t want to hear Gabi’s cop stories, while texting her friend Cas and admitting that she actually likes the stories.

Another interesting thing about the lipgloss detail is that it plays a role in the depiction of Gabi’s character and her relationship with the rookie cop. She’s not actually trying to help him – as Layla snarkily points out later, rubbing menthol or whatever on your upper lip won’t cover the smell of a body (she watches the crime channel). Gabi’s playing a prank on the rookie because he’s an FNG – Fucking New Guy. Because the lipgloss has glitter in it, the squad ends up calling him “Sparkles”. At first Gabi tries to brag about her prank to Layla (who isn’t interested) but later she feels bad about embarrassing the guy because he proves to be a conscientious, observant police officer. That affects the way Gabi treats him later in the story, and subsequently affects the way she thinks about herself, so that that random thing with the lipgloss ends up being meaningful all the way to the end of the novel.

I really appreciate this sort of writing – it’s clever, it’s thoughtful and it makes good use of the words (and thus of the effort we put into reading them).

Oh and, in case you were wondering, this is definitely a fantasy novel. I haven’t gotten into the details of how it’s fantasy, because for most of the story it’s quite a subtle thing, hovering between symptoms of madness and the decidedly supernatural. Sometimes I only realised later that a certain event had had a supernatural influence. If this isn’t enough of a fantasy element for you, then just be patient and brace yourself for the ending.

Review of This Devil’s Dice by Jackson Spence

Title: This Devil’s Dice
Author: Jackson Spence
Published: 22 August 2011
Publisher: Independent
Genre: psychological thriller, crime and mystery
Source: review copy from author
My Rating: 1/10

This was torture. Never have I slogged through so much purple prose or received so little in comparison to the effort and patience I put in.

Ethan is a 27-year old genius working on revolutionary research for his Master’s degree. He’s offered a lucrative proposition by the Baron, a ridiculously wealthy and very shady Russian who owns half the city (we’re not told which city, but it’s clearly first-world). Ethan takes the Baron up on his offer in order to escape the confines of university and the frugal lifestyle he’s been living. He also plans to dump his gorgeous girlfriend Olivia, an “imposter” who he’s only been dating because she looks like his ex-girlfriend, the woman he wants to track down and win back.

Clearly, Ethan is a complete and utter jackass, but not only because of the way he treats Olivia. He is also the narrator who spews forth most of the novel’s very purple prose and for this you will loathe him. Ethan is excessively arrogant, whiny and pretentious. He is the kind of person who won’t use the word ‘laboratory’ when he could call it a “pyretic Pyrex paradise”, or say that a girl has light brown eyes when he could describe them as “[t]awny terra cotta whole wheat toast coloured eyes”. Seriously, this is the kind of rubbish he utters:

Hazy recognition rose up in a mushroom cloud of atomic vapour, a fiery plume of masochistic Mexican flavour, and washed up just as quickly on the shore of certainty.

Her silver bangled hands had taunted me, flaunting their ability to ask questions in the form of fusillades;

The spirit of your soul is slack. Your self is a stale enigma. I stock stereotypes to sustain my solipsistic strut, drawn like a sonar around the sauna of your smoky mirrors. (These are just a few lines from a particularly dreadful paragraph using as many words starting with ‘s’ as possible.)

The authors – Michelle Jackson and Stuart Spence, hence Jackson Spence – rampantly abuse alliteration, similes, and metaphors, even if it means that their descriptions become senseless. They also went nuts with pretentious and irrelevant passages describing food and drink (the Baron is a glutton for ultra-gourmet food and the finest drinks, like a 1907 champagne rescued from a decades-old shipwreck), obscure artworks, architecture, etc. We have to learn all about Ethan’s good friend Flo, an amalgamation of black stereotypes. He’s an obese black gangster with a heart of gold, covered in bling, always eating, and only able to converse overstated gangster rapper style: “Whatcha tink of ma bling? 24 caratzz. 24 diamondzzz. I’z be pimpin’ now. Flashy, yeah? Dem felines dig it.”

Yes, really, although I have to admit that Flo was at least amusing sometimes, even if much of that information about him was unnecessary. With this kind of writing clogging up the novel, the plot could only move at a glacial pace, at least until the end, when it suddenly gets wrapped up very quickly. At the start, I kept wondering when the hell something was going to happen and if Ethan would ever stop whining about how nice and beautiful his girlfriend was. Very little happens in the first half, and we don’t even get to the main part of the plot as mentioned in the tagline and the blurb – how Ethan’s research is responsible for the “evolution of crime”, and leads to some gruesome murders around the city. The “evolution of crime” is certainly a drawcard, and yet the authors keep the subject of Ethan’s research a complete secret until the second half. I have no idea why. It has no real impact as a surprise, although it’s one of only interesting things in the novel and should have been expanded upon. But rather than make the most of this research – which really would be revolutionary, and not only for crime – it’s treated almost as an aside, just one more piece of information among countless others.

Similarly, we don’t hear about any of the murders until after we learn about Ethan’s research. Even then, they’re detailed in little shrink-wrapped sections that are more like reports describing the victims, their relation to the Baron (it’s no secret that he’s responsible), and why he wanted them out of the way. I say “shrink-wrapped” because the crimes have almost no effect on the rest of the narrative. None of the characters hear about them, so it doesn’t change the content of the story. Ethan goes on whining about Olivia, longing for his ex-girlfriend, hanging out with Flo, and generally being boring and pretentious. The Baron, who is co-ordinating all the murders, doesn’t speak about them.

Since the plot drew me to this book in the first place, I was particularly disappointed in its complete failure to entertain. Another reason I wanted to read it was that both the authors are South African, and I try to explore local genre fiction every now and then. As it turns out, there’s nothing South African about This Devil’s Dice, but I don’t consider that a criticism of the novel. However, I did get really annoyed when I came across this demeaning stereotype about some residents in Ethan’s apartment block:

there were a couple of South Africans living on the top floor; Zulus, I think. The elevator was always covered in various kinds of livestock shit. Could they have been using the animals for sacrifices?

These Zulus also disturb residents with their chanting. Seriously? Why write that? I don’t think that SA authors have a duty to write fiction with a local flavour, but why give your countrymen an insulting little cameo, especially when it has nothing to do with the plot? What is the point?

Weirdly enough, I felt that the intended highlight of the novel was actually the writing, characters, and descriptions of stuff, rather than the plot. It’s weird because all those things almost always suck and it’s hard not to feel that the authors are just showing off (and failing dismally). Here and there you’ll find a surprisingly vivid description, an intriguing character trait, or an interesting bit of information (there was some neurobiological stuff that I liked) but these tend to be lost amidst the sort of junk I mentioned earlier. Any writing pretentions are further ruined by multiple errors and a tendency for the POV to switch, unannounced, from first-person to third-person omniscient. I even stumbled across a dictionary definition for the word ‘irony’ and a recipe for Minced Mutton Patties, both of which seemed to have been copied and pasted into the text by mistake. What the hell? Didn’t the authors read over this before making it available to the public? Perhaps not, because I don’t know how someone could read This Devil’s Dice and imagine that others would enjoy it. Avoid, avoid, avoid.


Of course, you’re free to ignore my advice and buy a copy of This Devil’s Dice