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On the back of this book is one of the best blurbs I've ever encountered: “Imagine Poe and Steinbeck in a knife fight where Poe wins and writes Jack the Ripper's version of The Grapes of Wrath. Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls is even scarier than that.” This whimsical endorsement is from Richard Kadrey, an author I've never heard of, but now I may have to check him out. Anyway, Steinbeck and Poe and knife fights aside, The Shining Girls is a hallucinatory experience, circling around and around through time like a really long, bad trip. 

Harper Curtis is a murderer in the year 1931. Not a nice guy at all. Quite brutal and repulsive, in fact. He happens upon a house, and in the upstairs room the walls are covered with his handwriting. Names and objects flicker at him in varying degrees of brightness. These names are at once familiar to him and completely unknown. All Harper is sure of is that these girls, these shining girls, must be killed. One by one. By him. Oh, and the house lets him travel through time at will. Doesn't seem like a fair advantage for a serial killer to have, does it?

Meanwhile, in 1993, tough and cynical Kirby Mazrachi has survived a brutal attack and is actively hunting down the man who hurt her, with the grudging help of newspaper writer Dan Velasquez. Harper doesn't know he failed to finish the job, and Kirby doesn't know Harper may be a lot harder to find than she thinks. They're on a collision course, though, and the reader can feel the inertia of it from the first pages of the book.

Beukes really ratchets up the tension in the final chapters, as Kirby continues to put together details and inches closer to identifying Harper. The ending is heart-pounding, while managing to show how the loose ends were never really ends, just continuous loops that circle back on each other. It's a really surprising way to write a serial-killer novel, and Beukes makes it work, although sometimes the effort shows.

Bottom line: Leave the light on, and read this book.

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Brigid Quinn is a fifty-nine-year-old recently retired FBI agent who gets sucked back into an old case. Years ago, she trained a young new female agent in undercover skills, with the goal of sending her into the field to catch a serial killer who had been murdering women along the old Route 66 highway for years.

The mission went wrong and the agent is assumed dead, another victim of the serial killer they were trying to ensnare. Naturally, Brigid is dealing with a touch of guilt over failing to protect her protégé. When an arrest is made, Brigid is invited by the current agent on the case to come along to the site where the man says he dumped the young agent’s body. From there, events spiral quickly out of control, threatening everything from Brigid’s life to her new, safe, stable marriage.

The central mystery held my attention and ended in a mostly-satisfying way, but the real draw here is the complex character Masterman has created in Brigid and all the ways she attempts to both save and destroy herself. Her years as a special agent have not left her unscarred. She has a new, kindly husband and a quiet life in the desert Southwest, but she can’t quite settle down into it. She feels enormous pressure to hide parts of herself and her former life from her husband, assuming he won’t be able to handle the brutality she’s capable of. When she begins pursuing the Route 66 killer again, this time as a decommissioned and unauthorized agent, she carefully lies to cover how deep her involvement goes. By the end of the book, Brigid isn’t sure she’ll be able to stay out of jail, or that if she can’t, her husband will be waiting for her afterwards.

In the opening scenes, Brigid comes across as witty and incisive, and the tone of the book seems fairly light. As I continued turning pages, though, it became clear that Brigid hides behind humor when she is too afraid to deal with stark reality, and the bantering tone was masking a darker narrative. Brigid is not a female James Bond, she is not a bumbling, matronly Miss Marple, she is not a sleek Agent 99. She’s like what Uma Thurman’s character from Kill Bill would be, if she were about 20-30 years older: tough, tense, unforgiving, and not certain she deserves a normal life. Her pursuit of her old criminal nemesis is a good read, if a bit bleak.