Book Review: BROKEN MONSTERS, a demented, “artistic” killer in Detroit

Beukes, Lauren - Broken Monsters (5)Broken Monsters
Lauren Beukes

In Broken Monsters, the lives of a divorced and overworked detective, her bitter daughter, a washed up journalist looking for a break, and a homeless scavenger intersect as Detroit experiences a spate of horrific murders.

Detective Gabi Versado surveys what she assesses must be the worst murder scene of her career: the torso of a young boy, maybe ten, is seamlessly grafted onto the back half of a deer. . . and that’s not the first of the horrifically staged murders she encounters.

Occupied by the case, she hardly notices that her daughter, Layla, is steeped in pain from the divorce and the fact that her father has moved to Atlanta and started a new family. Every time she tries to talk to him, it seems he has to get off the phone to tend to his new baby. In this unsupervised milieu, Layla and her best (only) friend Cassie have started their own project: posing as young girls online to trap pedophiles. Layla, though, begins to understand that their quest to unmask predators has only hidden deep secrets Cassie has hidden from Layla.

TK, a homeless recovering alcoholic and ex-con who was arrested as a teenager for killing his mother’s abusive boyfriend, survives by scavenging; he also seems to know all of the denizens of the homeless community and serves as a liason of sorts with the church who runs the soup kitchen and outreach programs.

Jonno Haim, a journalist who fell apart in New York City after a difficult break-up, decamped to Detroit, and was reduced to writing click-bait, the top ten. . . When he meets DJ Jen Q, who sees a vision for him–YouTube stardom. The sensational murders dovetail with his desire to get viewers to his channel and, hopefully, return to “legitimate” or at least lucrative journalism, and he is willing to pay for confidential information to achieve his goals, even if it undermines the investigation into the killer.

These characters encounter the killer either by design or accident, putting them all in danger, and it’s unclear that even with their skills and determination if they can stop his determination to crack the borders of this world and achieve his goal which in his mind will allow him to escape the killer’s corporeal body.

Broken Monsters addresses the voyeurism of art and social media and questions the complicity of viewers, asking if anyone is responsible for the harm done by transgressions in virtual or public spaces. It also meditates on liminal or boundary areas, of particular interest to the killers, who draws chalk doors on the sites of his murders, a graffiti tag that is taken up across the country. Also indicted are the problematic structures of the police department, strained for resources and often constrained by political concerns that impede their efficacy.

Layla and Cass, both teenagers, have parents with different philosophies. Layla’s father is geographically and mostly psychologically absent, and though her mother is a police officer and capable of protecting her, she is distracted and doesn’t notice the signs of her daughter’s distress. Cass has very attentive and overprotective parents. She is going through almost identical issues as Layla, and even though her parents are very diligent, they still are unaware of her activities and her distress. Perhaps this is always parenthood, but it might also be heightened by the dangers presented by social media.

The story might not be possible in any other city but Detroit, with its vacant factories and abandoned warehouses but nascent and vibrant art scene that is trying to reclaim space for the community.

I loved Lauren Beukes’ Shining Girls so much; I thought it was exquisite. I did not have the same reaction to Broken Monsters. While I liked the stories of the individual characters and even the pathology of the killer, the book went too supernatural for my taste. Otherwise, I thought it was well-written, suspenseful, and unexpected.

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