On Shining Girls and Lonely Places

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The psychoses fomented by rigid constructions of masculinity are the topic of many serial killer narratives. Yet novels such as Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter also make their psychotics appear intriguing, attractive, and even seductive. Casting these murderers as sympathetic or even relatable characters undermines the horror of their actions. That these fantasies are explicitly male indicates a gendering of serial killer narratives. Female authors within the genre, such as Dorothy B. Hughes and Lauren Beukes refute such characterizations by criticizing a history of violence fostered by patriarchal structures. In this sense, Beukes’s The Shining Girls both updates and expands the themes of Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), the groundbreaking psychological thriller that introduced the serial killer plot as a vehicle for addressing the misogynistic suppression of female agency.

The Shining Girls opens in 1931 Chicago, with Harper Curtis on the lam from both the mob and the police. Harper takes up residence in a decrepit house that urges him to eliminate the “shining” girls, young women full of potential, by providing a wormhole through which he can travel to different eras. The narrative alternates between Harper’s murders and his history with Kirby Mazrachi, who survives one of Harper’s attacks at age eighteen. In the present, Kirby takes an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times to gain access to information about her would-be killer. While Kirby’s research reveals the unbelievable possibility that her killer has been operating for sixty years, Harper discovers the existence of the girl who lived and returns to finish his task.

As in Hughes’s novel, Beukes highlights the effects of war on the male psyche. Combat since the Great War has traditionally been portrayed as a defining masculine experience, and both Hughes and Beukes use it as a catalyst for their antagonists’ actions. Harper is a soldier who returns from WWI to a social displacement that leads to gambling, financial trouble, and, in turn, aggressions with the law. Beukes illustrates how the hostilities of wartime engagement cultivate the idea that masculinity is constructed through dominance, brutality, and conquest, which are qualities Harper enacts in extinguishing the potential of women whose ambition and intelligence threaten traditional gender roles.

The two books diverge, of course, in that In a Lonely Place is anchored to the specific time of post-World War II, while The Shining Girls uses time travel to explore the repercussions of Harper’s violence from 1929 to 1993. Science fiction fans may object to the logistics of Harper’s time travel, which is never adequately explained, but Beukes’s indeterminate ending speaks to an ongoing cycle of gendered violence. It is unclear whether the house fostered Harper’s murderous desires or whether Harper’s innate hatred and violence was powerful enough to create the wormhole, but this distinction is unnecessary. Although Harper’s time-traveling methods are inexplicable, his motivations are a clear and constant attempt to silence and destroy women’s agency. Rather than ending the novel with the inevitable showdown between Kirby and Harper, Beukes presents the POV of a peripheral character drawn to the 1929 house, implying the cycle will begin anew.

To highlight the indiscriminate nature of such violence, Beukes intersperses her victim’s stories with Harper’s narrative. Such victims include a nude dancer, a factory worker, a transsexual passing in a girlie show, a pharmaceutical researcher, and a drug-addicted artist. There is little commonality between these women, other than each one’s attempt to assert her own individuality and independence. The diversity of Harper’s victims speaks to a violence that affects women of all classes, races, and sexualities. Thus, in our current political milieu, in which ongoing legislation attempts to regulate women’s bodies or restrict LGBT identities, Beukes’s criticism of the denial of female autonomy is particularly resonant.

The Singer from Memphis covers ancient espionage

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Whether in classics, such as Homer’s The Iliad, or contemporary novels, like Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, the dominant literary tone toward ancient Athens is one of gravitas and reverence for the deeds of warriors, gods, and monsters. Rather than extending this mythology, Gary Corby treats antiquity with wit and whimsy in The Singer from Memphis. Disguised as a humorous caper plot, Corby’s novel combines the cynical tone of hardboiled detective fiction and the intrigue of espionage to make the classical world feel current.

When Athenian private investigator Nicolaos is contracted to guide aspiring historian Herodotus on a research trip through Egypt, various political interests complicate Nico’s straightforward protective detail. As his travels coincide with the Egyptian rebellion against the Persian Empire, Nico is charged by his statesman, Pericles, with a more difficult assignment: to represent Inaros, the Prince of Libya, in the delicate matter of overthrowing the Persian king Artaxerxes and establishing Inaros as the new Egyptian Pharaoh. Threatened by assassins, mercenaries, and crocodiles, Nico enlists the help of Djanet, the titular singer, to find the tomb of Psamtik and steal the late pharaoh’s crook and flail, the regalia that will symbolize the rightful ruler of Egypt.

Although serialized as an Athenian mystery, The Singer from Memphis is essentially a spy novel in its portrayal of treachery, bureaucratic corruption, and geopolitical jockeying. Corby frames his story in espionage terms, describing a Greek military advisor’s defection to Persia and characterizing Athenian-Persian relations after the Spartan’s last stand at Thermopylae as an ancient cold war. Indeed, Corby incorporates modern Cold War narrative conventions, such as cover stories and institutional agendas. Academic and entertainment professions, respectively, position Herodotus and Djanet to collect and circulate crucial information to their handlers, while Nico, the moral-driven protagonist, finds himself the pawn of the Tjaty, the Prime Minister of Egypt and head of its Public Service. Replete with distrust and double-crosses, The Singer from Memphis includes a classic espionage ending in which the individual agent’s will proves futile against the government machine.

In the tradition of historical fiction and spy narratives, The Singer from Memphis is a meticulously researched blend of fact and fiction. Corby enhances his novel with paratext, including a chronology that recounts 69 years of invasion, rebellion, and war and a lengthy Author’s Note that documents the real events and personages that populate Corby’s fictional world. The inclusion of Herodotus may seem incidental, but his The Histories provides the rich backdrop against which Corby sets his tale, as he incorporates accounts of cultural customs and develops minor characters from Herodotus’s comprehensive record. Yet, the novel avoids feeling overly didactic by balancing its history with humor, from Nico’s ironic contempt for religious rituals and government practices to oblique Elvis references that play on both the title and espionage themes of “suspicious minds.”

Corby’s comical approach makes light of darker crime fiction themes in hardboiled and espionage novels. His historical analysis, however, grounds The Singer from Memphis in a serious, realistic context that demythologizes pop culture depictions of the ancient world by replacing vengeful gods with crooked institutions. In this sense, Corby makes foreign affairs of the ancient world feel surprisingly timely. While the Persian Empire may no longer exist, the three-cornered war portrayed in The Singer from Memphis speaks to ongoing geopolitical instability and conflicts of power in Egypt and Libya.

The Singer from Memphis; 352 pages; Soho Crime, 2016.