You wait ages for a time-travelling serial-killer thriller and then two come along at the same time. But where AK Benedict's The Beauty of Murder chose an academic and philosophical approach, Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls goes straight for the Hollywood jugular (elevator pitch: Se7en meets Back to the Future; or, perhaps more accurately, Sever meets Back to the Suture).
Harper Curtis is a drifter in Depression-era Chicago. On the run after committing an act of violence, he happens upon a House, the significance of which is hinted at by that capital letter. Inside the House is, predictably, a Room, a shrine to girls killed across the decades. And inside the Room is a collection of "trophies" taken from each girl that will then be placed (often anachronistically) on another victim.
Curtis can walk out of the House at any given point between 1931 and 1993, allowing Beukes to examine each girl's life in relation to the wider events of their time.
But Curtis is not infallible, and in 1989 he rushes his "work" and leaves the rebellious and punkish Kirby Mazrachi alive. (Curtis chooses only girls who possess a "shining" quality.) Four years later, Mazrachi enrols as an intern at a newspaper and enlists the help of a much-older-than-her male journalist/love interest with whom she starts to track down the man who left her mentally and physically scarred for life. (Elevator pitch take two: The Silence of the Lambs meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.)
All of which makes for a reasonably compelling and thought-provoking thriller, but The Shining Girls is ultimately another high-concept novel that suffers in the execution. Because although the idea dictates that we travel backwards and forwards in time, the story frequently feels all over the place in ways presumably unintended.
At the crucial point of the attack on Mazrachi, for example, Beukes writes: "He feels for the knife with his other hand. Kirby tries to roll over it. She's too slow and uncoordinated. He grabs it out from under her and then Tokyo [Mazrachi's dog] gives a long rasping sigh and he's prying the dog away from his arm, yanking at the knife stuck in his neck." Eh? It's only later we can actually be sure whose neck the knife got stuck in and with readers desperately trying to keep up with the time zones, this sloppy approach to storytelling is the last thing that anyone needs.
And while Beukes is to be applauded for giving all of her victims full and rounded lives, the same is not afforded her killer, whose motives are only hinted at. All things considered then, The Shining Girls is a half-decent read that might make a decent movie. But given the excitement generated by its pre-publication hype (not to mention its title), it's surely unforgivable that The Shining Girls is a high-voltage idea that never entirely glows from the page.