Written by Julia Heaberlin – The Black Eyed Susans of the title are an attractive daisy-like flower and the cover as a whole is eye-catching, innocuous enough. There’s no sign of violence; this red haired girl could just be sleeping….
Lulled into a false sense of security, we begin with a prologue that is sparsely penned but vivid in its imagery that hits us right between the eyes. Award winning journalist Julia Heaberlin certainly knows how to write a killer intro!
In 1994, Tessie Cartwright was just 16 when she was found in a shallow grave in a Texas field, the body of a dead girl on top of her, assorted human bones scattered beneath her. She was alive, but her vital signs were so weak that it took a while for the medics to realise it. In the days that followed, Tessie could recall only fragments of what had happened to her. The press dubbed the victims the Black-Eyed Susans because of the yellow carpet of wild flowers that flourished above their shared grave and it’s a name that they’ve used for Tessie ever since.
Traumatised by her experiences, the teenager lost her sight for a while and to this day she is haunted by the girls who shared her resting place – she believes the ghosts of the Susans speak to her, begging for justice.
Skip to the present day and the man who was convicted of the crimes is on death row and about to be executed. Tessie is now Tessa, the mother of a teenage daughter and a successful artist. She has lived with the Susans all this time, trying vainly to put the tragedies of the past behind her. But doubt has been thrown on the conviction of Terrell Goodwin and the massive advances in the field of forensic science could prove his innocence. Tessa could help – but does she want to? She still can’t recall much of what happened back then, but someone is taunting her even now, planting small posies of Black Eyed Susans, even when they’re out of season, right where Tessa alone will spot them. It’s a chilling message that could be a prank, or they could be from the killer himself, and it’s enough to make up her mind.
Black Eyed Susans is peopled with a sparse but vividly drawn cast of utterly individual folk, from Effie, Tessa’s eccentric, elderly neighbour to her on-the-button teenage daughter Charlie. Then there’s Dr Jo Seger, a microchondrial DNA genius whose speciality is finding DNA markers in badly degraded bones, and defence attorney William James Hastings III, or Bill as he likes to be known. Together with Tessa they make a formidable trio. The action see-saws between the present day and 1995, when Tessie was in therapy and preparing for the trial of Terrell Goodwin.There is another cast of characters for this period too, with Tessie’s best friend Lydia and her shadowy therapist the main players.
It’s that ping-pong effect in the narrative which I found particularly annoying. One chapter ends with a particularly juicy bit of information, only for the page to turn and take us back in time or drag us to the present. It’s a ploy that leaves the flow feeling choppy and disconnected and it takes away some of the dramatic impact, particularly when some of the chapters are as little as two pages in length. It takes a while for the jerky reading rhythm to embed itself and to feel natural.
If you like dark and disturbing psychological thrillers then Black Eyed Susans should definitely go on your list – but prepare yourself for some bumpy time travel in the process.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars