Black Eyed Susan by Julia Heaberlin

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From Part 1:
“My mother she killed me,
My father he ate me,
My sister gathered together my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief,
Laid them beneath the juniper-tree,
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird I am!
– Tessie, age 10, reading aloud to her grandfather from ‘The Juniper Tree’, 1988”

Whenever I see a phrase such as “Thriller of the year” slapped on a book cover, I feel a tiny pang of sympathy for the story that needs to fulfil such a promise. Those exact words are stamped in the top left corner of my copy of Black Eyed Susans, and even though it’s a sure-fire way to tease out my inner book critic, this book not only lived up to every expectation, but I now count myself a Julia Heaberlin fan for life.

Tessa Cartwright is a Black-Eyed Susan, the clever nickname given by the media to the victims of a sadistic serial killer. As a 16-year-old, she was found dumped in a shallow grave – the ground covered in a spread of black and yellow flowers – with the unidentified bodies of three other girls. Alive. Her testimony helped put away the Black-Eyed Susans killer, even though she remembered very little as to his identity. But now, nearly two decades after her ordeal, the case has been reopened, the faceless Susans’ bones will be dug up and subjected to modern forensics.  And, chillingly, someone has planted a patch of yellow petaled flowers beneath Tessa’s bedroom window. Either it is a cruel gag by a serial killer fanatic, or an innocent man is on death row for the crimes of a killer that’s still on the loose.

I loved this book. It has all those little aspects that makes for a great thriller. Pitch-perfect writing. Seamless suspense. Taut plotting that kept me engaged and itching to discover the who, what and why. The points of view alternate between teenaged Tessa, post-attack and preparing to testify, and present day Tessa, a single, overprotective mother and artist. Present and past intertwine perfectly as adult Tessa tries to unravel her monster’s true identity. I certainly did not guess at who the killer was until just before the reveal – and it was completely unexpected!

One of the book’s most engrossing aspects, were the scattering of minor characters – lawyers, forensic scientists and activists and their pro/con views on the death penalty, which is a major plot line as it becomes increasingly clear that an innocent man may be executed.  The modern forensics used to identify the unknown Susans was fascinating and excellently researched – the descriptions and methods delighted my inner CSI nerd. There is also a nod to the O.J. Simpson case, which teenaged Tessa follows during the preparation for her own trial. I thought the inclusion of that bit of American true- crime history was quite clever, as it ties in well with the justice system’s reasoning in Tessa’s case and their initial conviction of the Black-Eyed Susans killer.

With this book, Julia Heaberlin certainly has conjured an elegant and sinister thriller that entertains and chills, and creeps into your subconscious just like a tangle of black-eyed Susans. Highly recommended.

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