He Hunts Me, He Hunts Me Not
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape and other forms of violence.)
The abandoned field on the Jenkins property was licked to death by fire about two years before the Black-Eyed Susans were dumped there. A reckless match tossed by a lost car on a lonely dirt road cost a destitute old farmer his entire wheat crop and set the stage for the thousands and thousands of yellow flowers that covered the field like a giant, rumpled quilt.
The fire also carved out our grave, an uneven, loping ditch. Black-eyed Susans sprung up and decorated it brazenly long before we arrived. The Susans are a greedy plant, often the first to thrive in scorched, devastated earth. Pretty, but competitive, like cheerleaders. They like to crowd out the others.
One lit match, one careless toss, and our nicknames were embedded in serial killer lore forever.
Sixteen-year-old Tessie Cartwright went out for a run one night and woke up in a grave. One minute, she was at Walgreens, buying a box of tampons and a Snickers bar for Roosevelt, the homeless man she passes every Wednesday on her running route; the next, she was barely clinging to life at the bottom of a ditch in a field of Black-eyed Susans. From the moment she was discovered, Tessie and the three bodies lying next to her – two skeletons and a fresh corpse – would forever be known as the Susans. Strangers in life, but sisters in death.
Though Tessie has no recollection of the assault – indeed, cannot even hope to identify her attacker, having lost her sight (“hysterical blindness”) after waking in the hospital bed, only to see a get well card sent by the killer (maybe) – District Attorney Al Vega still calls her to testify. It’s her testimony, along with junk science and a racist justice system (a contradiction in terms), that lands Terrell Darcy Goodwin on Death Row.
Now it’s 18 years later, and Goodwin has just weeks to live. Plagued by doubts of Goodwin’s guilt, haunted by the Susans in her head, and stalked by someone (the killer?) who keeps planting Black-eyed Susans in the places important to Tessie/Tessa (a handy device used to distinguish the child from the adult), she enlists the help of Goodwin’s lawyer, William James Hastings III. His late colleague, Angela Rothschild, was a wealthy crusader who spent the second half of her life freeing prisoners wrongly convicted in Texas. Angie had been trying to persuade Tessa to become involved Goodwin’s case for years, but she’d always refused, citing her daughter Charlie’s welfare as her primary concern. Angie respected her wishes, but with Angie’s death comes a fresh wave of guilt: at failing her mother, failing the Susans, and now failing Angie and Terrell.
As Tessa reluctantly revisits her troubled past, she finds that it never really left her after all.
The title does not lie. Black-Eyed Susans is indeed a novel fraught with suspense. There are plenty of twists and turns and red herrings to keep you guessing; more than once, I thought I knew who the real killer was, only to be led down a different path several chapters later.
This is a story told in three parts, with chapters alternating between then and now: first, Tessie (in the year following the attack) and Tessa (present-day); then the countdown to Goodwin’s execution (where testimony from the 1995 trial is interspersed with contemporary events and discoveries); and finally, Tessa (the adult) and Lydia (the teenager; Lydia was Tessie’s best friend and confidant). I love this narrative structure; the present-day story line often sheds light on the flashbacks, and vice versa, making for an enjoyable and captivating reading experience. Nearly every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, demanding that you read just one more chapter before bed. Before you know it, it’s 3AM and you’re bleary-eyed with fatigue.
Heaberlin also does a masterful job birthing her characters and then allowing them room to grow. While clearly the same person, Tessie and Tessa each have their own unique vibe. Equal parts murder mystery, social critique, and psychological thriller, Black-Eyed Susans skillfully examines the havoc that trauma can wreak on a teenage mind – both immediately following the event, and even decades later. While firmly rooted in reality (e.g., the forensic science), Heaberlin throws in the odd supernatural element (that admittedly feels out of place, at least initially) to make us question Tessa’s sanity. The Susans aren’t dead, but have taken up residence is Tessie/Tessa’s head – starting with the first moment she met Merry (the most recent victim), still very much alive at the time.
Bill, Angie, Jo, Lucas, Charlie, and Effie (short for Euphemia) are all a pleasure to get to know as well (even if, in Angie’s case, it’s posthumously). The relationship between Tessa and Bill, while predictable, is still a pleasure to watch; and it’s nice that she and Lucas (her baby daddy) can maintain an amicable, even cooperative and healthy, relationship.
Another thing I adore is Heaberlin’s use of pop culture markers to delineate the different time frames and give the overall story a sense of place and space: The O.J. Simpson trial, The Colbert Report, Stephen King, historic revitalization projects, pig tunnels running under Fort Worth. The leaps and bounds in technology that developed between 1995 and 2013. (I’m roughly the same age as Tessa, so our experiences in this regard are similar.) I could especially identify with Lydia, Tessie’s dark and macabre friend, what with her love of Edgar Allen Poe and fascination with Jack the Ripper. (Among my middle school book reports was a piece on Pet Sematary; and for a college media studies course, I inexplicably chose to do my presentation on ice pick lobotomies. Because Girl, Interrupted?)
This is why it hit me especially hard when their friendship began to unravel. That, and there are so few positive depictions of healthy, functional female friendships that it’s painful to lose one…even if you never quite had it to begin with.
I also appreciate that Heaberlin doesn’t feel it necessary to revisit the Susans’ assaults and murders in graphic and gruesome detail. They were murdered, most likely also raped, but we don’t need to revel in the particulars in order to feel sympathy for them, or outrage on their behalf.
As for the ending? Not my favorite. When the real killer is finally unmasked, the big reveal feels a little too coincidental. Unrealistic. Almost as though Heaberlin chose the most unlikely suspect just so she could jump out of the tool shed and scream “GOTCHA SUCKERS!.” Up until this point, I was ready and eager to give Black-Eyed Susans a full five stars.
Even so, it remains an enjoyable read: spooky and sinister, with just the right mix of horror and suspense, cultural commentary and social justice bent. I’d most definitely devour it again if given a do-over.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Yes. Terrell Darcy Goodwin, the man wrongfully convicted of the murder of the three Susans (and the attempted murder of Tessie) is African-American; racial injustice, particularly in relation to the death penalty, is touched upon numerous times. Dr. Giles, Tessa’s therapist, is a WOC with “velvet brown skin.” One of the Susans, later identified as Carmen Rivera, was a Mexican exchange student. Benita Alvarez, a social worker assigned to Tessie’s case, is Latina. Tessie’s next-door neighbor Euphemia Outler (Effie for short) is an ex-science professor in the early stages of dementia.
Animal-friendly elements: Not really.