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.

The devil of Pig Island is in the details

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Do not be fooled by Pig Island’s unappealing title. The very banality of the name is an act of deceit, an inverse glamour that conceals a novel fixated on illusion, both in physical ugliness and false pretenses. Yet, with its allusions to both Pygmalion and The Island of Dr. Moreau, the title is also a conceit, an elaborate metaphor in which Mo Hayder marks Pig Island as an extension of these transformation narratives.

**The remaining review contains potential spoilers.**

A tourist video showing a blurry image of a grotesque half-human/half-beast on the shores of Pig Island arouses suspicions of devil worship performed by the Psychogenic Healing Ministries, the religious group that inhabits the secluded Scottish atoll. Seeking to dispel these accusations of Satanism, the PHM invites journalist Joe Oakes to investigate the “devil of Pig Island.” Oakes eagerly accepts the offer, as his reputation for debunking paranormal hoaxes originated eighteen years prior when he discredited the fraudulent faith healing ministries of the PHM’s founder, Pastor Malachi Dove. Because Dove’s increasingly erratic behavior has exiled him from the community, the PHM persuades Oakesy to disgrace the pastor a second time by writing an exposé that will have Dove declared legally insane and ousted from the island. As Oakes’s investigation reignites hostilities between the two men, he becomes a target for Dove’s delusions of godlike grandeur.

Like the purported devil of Pig Island, Hayder’s novel conveys a sense of dread and uncertainty through its amalgamated form and disquieting imagery. Dividing the action between three locations allows Hayder to mutate each strain of her story into different genres based on geography. Hayder creates a distinct atmosphere in each environment that correlates to the transformation of Dove’s daughter Angeline, whom Oakes discovers hidden on the island.

With its Lovecraftian blend of the supernatural and the scientific, the Pig Island setting evokes the tone of weird fiction. Because of a birth defect that spawned a vestigial limb, Angeline has been quarantined in the remote wilderness of the island. This is a space of trauma and madness, where Malachi has imposed both a paternal and pastoral authority over Angeline. Because he believes her deformity is unclean, a curse from the devil, Malachi subjects Angeline to repeated exorcisms in a misguided attempt to purify and purge the demons within her.

Following a tragic crime on the island, the novel shifts into a tale of domestic suspense as Joe, his wife Lexie, and Angeline relocate to a police safe house on the Scottish mainland. That this space is nicknamed the “rape suite” due to the violation of some female residents by the authorities forebodes both a physical and psychological probing into the women’s psyches. As Hayder confronts a less insidious form of masculine dominance in Joe’s attempts to protect both women from murderous threats made by Malachi, she also articulates the Oakes’ marital struggles by dividing the narrative between Oakesy and Lexie and revealing each partner’s self-motivated interest in allowing Angeline to remain the stranger in the house.

In the bleak urban wasteland of London, the novel concludes as pure noir. Haunted by fears of retribution from Malachi, Joe spirals into depression and a self-destructive madness that mirrors his antagonist’s own insanity. Meanwhile, Angeline becomes more socialized, seeking the normality denied first by her father’s obsessive control and then by Joe’s desire to shield her from a society that could potentially be repulsed by her disfigurement. As Angeline struggles to assert her own identity, the conflict between Joe’s regression and her maturation culminates in disastrous consequences.

Continuing the tradition of transformation narratives, Hayder illustrates how metamorphosis leads to revelation. In this instance, though, Hayder overthrows the patriarchal authority implicit in the god-creator figures of Shaw and Wells. Through its porcine connotations of chauvinism, which often enforces the possession of female figures through isolation, Pig Island exposes a sexism that is much more sinister in its delusions than any demon, devil, or demigod.

Pig Island; 352 pages; Grove Press, 2015 reissue.

The Ironic Neo-Noir of Niceville’s Resident Evil

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Niceville is to Carsten Stroud what rural Maine is to Stephen King. Both places are fertile imaginative landscapes against which their authors explore the sociology and superstitions of insular communities. Much like King’s Needful Things or It, in which the supernatural acts as an agent of the environment, Niceville is a chilling depiction of the trauma, iniquity, and injurious memories suppressed under the pretense of small-town values.

After ten-year-old Rainey Teague is reported missing, Detective Nick Kavanaugh’s investigation determines that the disappearance is no mere kidnapping. Rather, security cameras of the child’s last known location show him to simply vanish. When Teague inexplicably reappears days later, inside a locked tomb in the town’s graveyard, Kavanaugh delves into the mystery of the 179 random stranger abductions that have occurred in Niceville since 1928. Assisted by his wife, his partner, and a police CI, Kavanaugh finally determines that something inhuman, something from the outside, is targeting the bloodlines of the Founding Four families.

Because Stroud draws from several disparate genres, Niceville’s many plotlines and populous cast may initially feel incongruous. As evidenced by the town’s ironic name, however, the novel is as much a satiric deconstruction of literary traditions as it is a demystification of the Old South. Therefore, to appreciate the novel requires an understanding of the influences that inform Stroud’s work and how they tie together to build the bizarre world of Niceville.

For fans of hardboiled crime fiction, Stroud’s canvass of the town exposes its gritty underside. Intertwining subplots include a bank robbery that leaves four cops dead, a slighted citizen intent on exposing the sexual deviances of others, and the blackmail of a security firm founder as part of a corporate takeover. As in that most famous of hardboiled novels, The Maltese Falcon, though, these story lines merely serve as MacGuffins for the true terror lurking beneath the town’s surface.

Indeed, such cultural decay of crime and violence moves Stroud’s novel into the Southern Gothic, addressing the grievances and blood feuds masked by the South’s quaint, idyllic image. As the abductions relate to a century-old slight between two families, regarding a rakish cad’s indiscretion that leaves a young girl in trouble, the many now face expiation for the sins of a few. With an entity that travels through mirrors and glass to exact its vengeance, these reflective surfaces become a metaphor for the masquerade of small town idealism, exposing the wickedness otherwise concealed by Niceville’s citizens. In this sense, the land itself is the novel’s most important character, exhibiting a consciousness that absorbs and feeds upon the malicious energies of its inhabitants.

Although it deploys conventions of crime fiction, magical realism, and the horrific, fantastic, and Gothic, Niceville is, above all, a neo-noir fiction dictated by the characters’ own fatalistic propensity for self-destruction. With two successive installments in the trilogy, the novel’s cliff-hanging end proves to be the real beginning of the Niceville saga. As Stroud leaves the reader with nothing but unsettling questions, one feels that the only conclusive answer is that the residents of Niceville are simultaneously plagued by a past on which they had no bearing and prevented from a future in which they will have any agency.

Niceville; 464 pages; Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013 reprint.

The Father figures the dynamics of excessive force

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With the abundance of sleuths who have become household names, from Sherlock Holmes to Harry Hole, crime fiction can often seem synonymous with serialized detective stories. Yet the genre occasionally produces the rare narrative that focuses instead on the criminal character. Rather than relegating these figures to the role of conventional antagonists, Anton Svensson’s The Father, Made in Sweden: Part I (2016) portrays the lives of four bank robbers with empathy and intensity as it delves into the structures of familial alliance, social inclusion, and economic disparity that compel their criminality.

The first of a two-novel series, The Father is based on the true story of three brothers who executed a string of bank heists in Sweden during the 1990s. In the fictionalized account, three brothers — Leo, Felix, and Vincent Dûvnjac — and their childhood friend Jasper first plunder an army artillery before staging robberies that become increasingly ambitious in scope, leading the media to dub them the “Military League.”

Co-authored under the pseudonym of Anton Svensson, The Father achieves its intimate perspective from Stefan Thunberg, the fourth brother, and its naturalistic style from Anders Roslund, the investigative reporter who covered the story. This unique combination results in multiple points of view that portray both an incisive interiority, when voicing the thoughts of the Dûvnjac family members, and a distanced objectivity, when City Police detective analyzes the Military League’s actions.

The skillfully crafted narrative alternates between past and present timelines in order to detail the childhood events that led to the brothers’ crime spree, as various permutations of violence permeate the lives of the Dûvnjacs. Ivan, the titular father, uses force as a form of dominance and discipline within his household, repeatedly beating his wife into submission while teaching his sons that family is an unbreakable bond, as he trains his oldest son, Leo, how to box in self-defense. The prologue exemplifies this paradox of violence, documenting the singular encounter that results in the dissolution of the brothers’ bond with their abusive father, which consequently strengthens their ties to one another. Their recollection of this moment, however, is subjective, as each brother insists that he is responsible for opening the front door for their estranged father, allowing him access to attack their mother and forcing them to finally take a stand against his brutality. In turn, each brother’s interpretation of this incident reveals a particular psychological motivation for his criminal activity.

With its emphasis on family dynamics, The Father is a crime novel in the vein of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. One can’t ignore the similar patrilineal titles, but the two works also share a psychological exploration of criminality and kinship. Unlike The Godfather, however, in which the patriarch is a symbol of stalwart leadership and unquestionably power that passes from one generation to another, The Father is more concerned with the fallibility of such a conception. Rather than representing trust and loyalty as clear-cut parameters dictating that no one goes against the family’s interests. Instead, trust within the Dûvnjac clan vacillates between nurturing values of filial and fraternal obedience and disillusioning one of these ideals, illustrating how the ties that bind can eventually create a noose around one’s neck.

The Father, Made in Sweden: Part I (Quercus Books) available 5 April 2016.