Wednesday, August 5, 2015


BLACK-EYED SUSANS by Julia Heaberlin (Michael Joseph, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Seventeen-year-old Tessa, dubbed a "Black-Eyed Susan" by the media, became famous for being the only victim to survive the vicious attack of a serial killer. Her testimony helped put a dangerous criminal behind bars - or so she thought.

Now, decades later, the case has been reopened and the Black-Eyed Susans planted outside Tessa's bedroom window seem to be a message from a killer who should be safely in prison.
Tessa agrees to help with the investigation, but she is haunted by fragmented memories of the night she was attacked and terrified for her own teenage daughter's safety. Can she unlock the truth about the killer before it's too late?

This is an exceptional, creepy thriller. A book that should challenge for a spot on many "best of" lists at the end of the year, and give awards judges plenty to ponder. I read Heaberlin's debut, PLAYING DEAD, a few years ago and thought it was a good book that showed plenty of promise. A double, in baseball terms. With BLACK-EYED SUSANS, Texas native Heaberlin mashes a home run right out of the park and bouncing down the highway.

This is a very well-plotted thriller, a page-turner that's much more. Heaberlin creates a good cast of characters, evokes her setting extremely well, and delves into a contentious topic: the death penalty. The United States is a bit of an anomaly, the only 'western democracy' that still executes criminals. It stands alongside the likes of China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in the 'top five' countries that execute people each year. And Texas is far and away the execution capital of the United States.

In BLACK-EYED SUSANS the man facing a 'judicial killing' is Terrell Darcy Goodwin, who's languished on Texas's death row for almost two decades, after being convicted of a string of brutal murders. Four 'black-eyed Susans' were unlucky enough to cross the killer's path, and Tessa Cartwright was the only teenager to survive, after being left for dead in a shallow grave.

Tessa's hope that the impending execution of Goodwin, her "monster", might bring some closure or relief, is upturned when doubts arise. Her already fragile mental state is put under even more distress. Who is planting black-eyed susans outside her window? Is it a message from someone associated with Goodwin, a sicko fan or supporter of his, or is a dangerous killer at large?

BLACK-EYED SUSANS smoothly switches between past and present as Tessa, and the reader, try to work out just what is going on. Heaberlin keeps us teetering on the edge of our seats while providing plenty of substance to go with her fine style. The reality of the death penalty, the regimented process a state goes through to dispatch a human being, is explored in all its brutality and banality. The rich cast of characters reflect differing opinions on an issue that is far from black and white, and Heaberlin does a fine job raising questions in the reader's mind, and causing us to think, to question our assumptions and preconceptions, without lecturing or getting on a soap box.

There is a lot to love about this book, from its fine plotting, clever twists, and well-evoked setting, to the deeper social issues that bubble away beneath the story. We see the ongoing impact of violent crime on a victim, even twenty years later - the burdens that remain long after public interest and media stories have moved on. What is justice? What value does retribution have?

A superb novel that catapults Heaberlin into the upper echelon of thriller writers.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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