By Melissa Maerz
January 23, 2015 at 05:00 AM EST

When critics talk about ”boy genius” authors, they’re talking about guys like Ned Beauman. The London native was the youngest writer on Granta‘s once-a-decade list of the best young British novelists in 2013, at age 28. Boxer, Beetle, his 2010 debut, followed a nine-toed boxer and a swastika-stamped beetle through 1930s Britain in a caper about eugenics. The Teleportation Accident, a genre bender about a man who time-travels between Weimar-era Berlin and 1930s Hollywood, got him long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. His latest, Glow, introduces a pill-popping raver named Raf who discovers that a friend has been kidnapped by mysterious forces in a white van. It’s a pulpy whodunit, but it develops into something much weirder: a conspiracy thriller that involves a Burmese paramilitary group, the international trade of an MDMA knockoff called ”glow,” and a shady mining corporation called Lacebark. The whole thing is so complicated that by the end of its slim 247 pages, you might feel as if your brain had been CrossFit training.

That’s a good thing, until it isn’t. At first, the mystery is irresistible because it’s easy to care about Raf, a guy with so much heart he unlocks the lonely pit bull who’s chained to his building to walk her around London each day. Beauman’s descriptions are so vivid I started marking the best ones until I’d dog-eared half the book: The moon is a ”silver pill half dissolved on the tongue of the night.” A child’s discarded glove is ”like the carcass of a small, blind mammal with a body made mostly of fingers.” But whenever he adds an insanely complex subplot to this already idea-stuffed book, his characters are forced to divulge what’s happening. (”You still haven’t explained what exactly Lacebark are doing in London. Is it something to do with the Shan forest Concession?”) It’s strange that an author who’s so fascinated by the human drive for pleasure would forget that great books are like great drugs. They can be as mind-bending as you like. But first, they have to be fun. B+

”When Barky does arrive he still wears flecks of shaving cream on both ear lobes like little pearl studs, so maybe, like Raf, he got out of bed only a short while ago.”