Book review: Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters breathes frightening new life into a tired old genre

Tod Goldberg

Four stars

Broken Monsters By Lauren Beukes, $23.

The problem with serial killer books is that we’ve all seen too much. When Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs was released in 1988, the world was different. We’d not yet learned about forensics via the CSI-fication of TV, our knowledge of profilers was dim at best (as was the actual job), and our understanding of the motivations of people like the Night Stalker or the Green River Killer or Son of Sam typically included the very real possibility that they were simply Satanists. Subsequent to the success of The Silence of the Lambs, and the intense scrutiny we now place on mass killers, both in fiction and real life, the reality of the world often makes novels like Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters seem superfluous. Do we really need one more book about a lunatic chopping people up and the cops who finally stop him?

In this case, the answer is yes. Oh yes. Set in present-day Detroit, a bombed-out city that is now equally known for the socio-archaeological value of its ruins and for the civilization porn it has created in its wake—“They drive past a fashion shoot in a gloomy interior full of rubble, a wiry guy holding up a bounce board to better direct the light at a girl with big eighties hair in a bikini top and short-shorts, standing defiantly against the cold among the pillars of a caved-in factory floor …”—a serial killer is leaving twisted art installations of the dead around the city.

The first, the trunk and head of a boy fused with the rear half of a deer, kicks off the novel. If at first this seems like just another story of a wacko with a fetish, you must push forward, as Beukes presents multiple points of view, from Det. Gabriella Versado, the cop on the trail, a complex and welcome narrator; and Jonno, the quasi-hipster writer who has come to Detroit looking for something to blog about; and the killer himself, the most interesting and horrifying killer since Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon. Beukes imbues him with just the slightest bit of empathy, making his crimes all the more disturbing.

Broken Monsters also takes big chances with narrative. Mixing straight storytelling with listicles, text messages, Snapchats, feature stories, blog posts and straight reporting, Beukes pulls off the mélange to create not merely the vision of a horrific killer but also the lurid world that would create him. Which is to say Broken Monsters is a singular achievement for the genre, and a sign of great things to come from Lauren Beukes.

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