Suspenseful Black-Eyed Susans

susansSixteen-year-old Tessie Cartwright was found naked and almost dead in a field of wild flowers, along with the corpses of the killer’s other victims, in shock and missing the memory of some crucial hours.  Evidence pointed to Terrell Goodwin, but it was Tessie’s testimony about her experience that convinced the jury to convict.  Terrell spends almost 20 years on death row, while Tessie buries deep the nagging thought that the monster who abducted her is still out there, targeting her and her teenage daughter.  Because if Terrell’s the monster, then who is tormenting her by planting black-eyed Susans under her window?

That doubt – and her inability to remember the crucial hours – is what leads Tessa to cooperate with Bill Hastings, Terrell’s attorney.  He’s making a last-ditch effort to investigate the case and save his client’s life.  And Tessa is making a last-ditch effort to unravel the defining mystery of her life.  Because her memory is that not all the Susans (as the girls were called) were dead.  In fact, she distinctly remembers talking with them as they lay beneath the cold earth.  And she still hears their voices in her head.

Author Julia Heaberlin‘s novel is her third, and it is assured, well-written, and packed with suspense. The perspective switches between Tessie, age 16, and present-day Tessa.  As Bill and his forensic expert colleague seek clues as to the real identity of the dead girls, Tessa tries with all her might to unpack her memories of the critical hours.  The solution, when revealed, is shocking.  Heaberlin packs just enough red herrings into the plot to keep the astute reader guessing till the end.

Less successful:  The last-minute arrival of character X to reveal all – and that character’s reasons for doing so – seems forced.  The concept behind the big reveal is excellent; I’d love to say more but don’t want to have to go all “spoiler alert” on you.   The execution, however, particularly the choice to suddenly give the reader several chapters from character X’s point of view, could be smoother.  And there’s a pretty big plot hole which is apparent on reflection.

I’m sure some readers will find my complaint  about the ending just so much nit-pickery, and overall, Black-Eyed Susans is definitely worth reading.  It kept me turning the pages.  The ultimate accolade?   I plan to read her first two books, Playing Dead and Lie Still.

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