Genre fiction is a literary ghetto. Anything tarred with the labels mystery, western, sci-fi or fantasy goes on its own separate shelf, far away from the high culture of literary fiction. But there are annual prizes in genre fiction that catch everyone’s attention, and two were given out last week: The Edgar Award for the best mystery novel went to Steve Hamilton’s The Lock Artist , and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best science-fiction novel went to Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City .
Before it is a science-fiction novel, “Zoo City” is a detective story, the tale of a woman thrust into the middle of a mystery. In this alternate-universe version of South Africa, murderers (called “zoos”) carry their guilt with them in the form of a spirit animal that’s bound to them and gives them magical powers. The animal stands between the guilty and the Undertow, a force that swallows up any zoos whose animals are killed. Zinzi is a zoo with a blackmail problem who gets drawn into investigating the disappearance of a teenage pop star and winds up uncovering a much more sinister plot.
Beukes, who lives in Cape Town, is an enchanting writer, but the last third of her novel becomes disconnected from the tight first segment and grows so fantastical that it’s hard to stay engaged. One gets the sense that the author wasn’t sure how to end her story, so she brought in the machetes.
With a narrator who hasn’t spoken since the age of 8 because of a Terrible Secret That Will Someday Be Revealed, Hamilton’s “The Lock Artist” seems almost guaranteed to be a letdown. Spoiler: It’s not. Hamilton, who works for IBM in Upstate New York, understands what’s truly scary, what’s truly suspenseful. Michael, a mute 17-year-old with a talent for drawing and lock-picking, tells two concurrent stories: one of his senior year in high school and one of his experience as a master safecracker. While the structure of the book seems at first as simple as its aggressively unstylish prose, it shifts quickly from a teenage love story to a heist-gone-wrong. The racing conclusion feels inevitable but entirely fresh.
Zublin is a writer for The Post.
THE LOCK ARTIST
By Steve Hamilton
336 pp. Paperback, $14.99
By Lauren Beukes
Osprey. 416 pp. Paperback, $7.99