Thriller of the Month: Black-Eyed Susans
Black-Eyed Susans is a chilling psychological thriller and a tense and gripping whodunit, but it is also so much more besides. It is a masterfully crafted story, rich in pitch-perfect details, brilliantly realised characters and nuanced themes. It is as human as it is forensic, exploring modern methods of investigation as well as the darker aspects of human nature.
Advances in forensic science, and the minutiae of evidence play a large part in the narrative, but so too do the more abstract themes of honesty, instinct and notions of innocence. At the heart of the novel is a question: who is the real victim in this story?
Seventeen-year-old Tessa was the only girl to survive the attack of a brutal serial killer, eighteen years ago. But from the moment she was abducted outside her school, until she finally woke in a shallow grave, 32 hours later, surrounded by remains of other girls, she has no memory. The media were quick to give the victims a name, the ‘Black-eyed Susans’, and Tessa, the only living ‘Black-eyed Susan’ was to give testimony that would be vital in convicting the suspected killer: Terrell Goodwin.
In the weeks leading up to the trial, a psychiatrist tries to help Tessa remember some of the supressed details of her ordeal. The experience is harrowing for her and she reacts with revulsion and rebellion – she is evasive and doesn’t tell the full truth. As you read, you will wonder about the reasons for Tessa’s dishonesty.
By the end of the trial, and thanks to Tessa, the serial killer was convicted and sentenced to death – or was he? Nothing is as it seems in this novel. The story has two strands, one in past tense, which tells the story of what happened in the lead up to Tessa’s abduction, and the other, which tells the story of her life now, eighteen years on with a teenage daughter of her own, wracked with doubts, receiving fresh threats from someone who seems to know a lot about the case.
Much of the pleasure of this book derives from its meticulous timing. The reader gets to play detective in an unpredictable and whip-smart story, in a style of narrative that calls to mind Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The story is, in many ways, a cautionary tale; secrets are very human but as the novel elucidates, there is real danger in withholding information.
Ultimately, Tessa is the very human centre of Black-Eyed Susans. The novel is macabre, thrilling and haunting but, when you consider Tessa’s story of survival, it is illuminating, moving and hopeful too.