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Summer fiction: Time-traveling serial killer in Chicago

Lauren Beukes who once lived Old Town said she based her scary new time-travel novel Chicago because she thought she

Lauren Beukes, who once lived in Old Town, said she based her scary new time-travel novel in Chicago because she thought she could write it “with a certain degree of authenticity.” | PHoto by Morne van Zyl

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Updated: June 2, 2013 9:04PM

In 2000, Lauren Beukes, a fledgling novelist from South Africa, traveled to New York City to pursue a romance with her new boyfriend. But that love affair quickly went “horribly wrong,” as she would recall years later, and soon she decamped to Chicago, where she spent a relatively pleasant six months living with friends in Old Town before heading back to her homeland to pursue a career as a journalist and writer of science fiction.

A decade later, when she began to develop an idea for what would become “The Shining Girls” (Mulholland Books, $26), her deliciously dread-inducing new novel about a time-traveling serial killer, she realized fairly early that it would be set in the Windy City.

“I was primarily interested in the 20th century, and if I’d set the story in South Africa, it would have been an apartheid novel, and that aspect would have completely overwhelmed the story,” says Beukes, 36, in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where she was preparing to begin a multi-city tour before the book’s publication next week. (She will be appearing at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago on June 9.) “I also recalled a horrific murder that happened between where I lived in Old Town and nearby Cabrini-Green. I remembered that event, and the city itself, pretty vividly, and felt I could render it in the book with a certain degree of authenticity.”

The result is one of the scariest and best-written thrillers of the year, not to mention the most memorable portrait of a serial killer since Henry H. Holmes slithered through the pages of another book set in Chicago, Erik Larson’s 2003 nonfiction bestseller “The Devil in the White City.”

In “The Shining Girls,” the dead-eyed Harper Curtis finds a key to a house in Depression-era Chicago with the ability to send him hurtling through time in pursuit of female victims — that is, until he meets his match in the form of Kirby Mazrachi, whom he first meets in 1974 when she’s a young girl. When he comes to finish her off in 1989, she survives his murderous assault and, with the help of a veteran reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, begins stalking her stalker.

The plot is full of the chronological paradoxes and overlaps common to the time-travel genre, with Kirby and Curtis obsessively navigating around and toward each other through concentric circles full of ideas about destiny and free will, with the inevitable final showdown awaiting them at novel’s end. “On the one hand, it’s a fun high concept, and obviously commercial,” admits Beukes, who lives in Cape Town with her husband and young daughter. “On the other hand, I also hope the structure of the book can support some ideas about the evolving role of women in the 20th century, how it has shaped us. I didn’t want the story just to be a bloody puzzle for a detective to solve. I also wanted it to be a reflection of these women’s lives.”

Beukes also took care to reinforce and authenticate much of what she remembered of Chicago, returning here for a research trip in 2012. She consulted, among others, retired Chicago Police Detective Joe O’Sullivan, who briefed her on some of the city’s grisliest real-life crimes; former Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis, who provided background on life in the newsroom; and Chicago History Museum volunteer Ed Swanson, who fact-checked the novel’s depictions of Chicago geography and lore.

Perhaps her most complicated task was keeping track of the time-travel plot’s hairpin twists and turns. To that end, Beukes created a vast diagram on a bulletin board in her office, using color-coded strands of string to map the network of plot points across various locations and timeframes. (The serial killer’s murders were linked across timelines by red strings, while yellow strings connected the souvenirs he takes from his victims; most hauntingly of all, black strings denoted the souvenirs he left behind with them.)

“There’s so much popping around in town everything had to be carefully structured, so the strings were there to make sure that everything was actually sequential,” she says. “Otherwise I never would have been able to keep it all straight.”

Kevin Nance is a local free-lance writer. Twitter: @KevinNance1.

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