By Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine. 354 pp. $26
It’s 1995. Tessie Cartwright, 16, healthy, happy, the star of her high school track team, is abducted near her home in Fort Worth. More than 30 hours later, battered and torn, she awakes partially buried in a field carpeted with black-eyed Susans. Sharing her grave are a dead college student and the bones of two other victims. Feverish news organizations dub the victims the “Black-Eyed Susans,” with traumatized Tessie as the surviving Susan. Thus begins Julia Heaberlin’s brilliantly conceived, beautifully executed novel about one woman’s fight against relentless evil.
Tessie tells her story in alternating past and present chapters that describe two points in her life: as a teenager in the months leading up to the trial of Terrell Goodwin, the man accused of abducting her and killing the others; and as a 34-year-old, using her grown-up name, Tessa, resuming her story as Goodwin faces his long-delayed execution.
The chapters told by the young Tessie focus on her contentious sessions with a psychiatrist. She insists that she never saw her attacker and remembers nothing except waking half-buried, face to face with the dead girl, but the prosecutors hope that the psychiatrist can dislodge memories to strengthen their case. Tessie dislikes the doctor, evades and misleads him, and refuses to submit to hypnosis. We wonder what she could possibly be hiding.
In the present-day chapters, the adult Tessa must decide whether she will cooperate with attorneys using DNA to challenge the convictions of Goodwin and others on death row in Texas. Tessa has come to question his guilt and to regret that her youthful testimony helped convict Goodwin. Still, she resists involvement. Why? Because she thinks the real killer has been sending her threatening messages. Or is this the work of one of the many cranks and sickos who are drawn to her case?
Many vivid, sometimes suspicious characters fill the story. The psychiatrist and the chief prosecutor work to manipulate Tessie for their own ends. A handsome young attorney fighting to save Goodwin’s life finds his interest in Tessa becoming more than professional.
Tessie’s closest childhood friend is Lydia, a strange girl, the one who, when other students wrote reports about the Beatles, wrote about Jack the Ripper. Lydia shares Tessie’s secrets, testifies at her trial and then vanishes. Did she flee? Was she murdered? The conflicted bond between Lydia and Tessie is intriguing, with each character exceptionally well drawn.
Both as a portrait of modern, urban Texas, and in terms of suspense, characterizations and storytelling, “Black-Eyed Susans” is outstanding, but it also operates on another, essentially political level. There are two serial killers at work in this story. The first is whoever attacked Tessie and killed the other Susans. The second is the state of Texas, which leads the United States, and most of the world, in the number of people it puts to death. “A state that executes men monthly,” Tessa notes bitterly.
Although Tessa is the novel’s heart, its heroes are the lawyers and doctors using DNA and other evidence to prove how many innocent men the state has imprisoned or put to death. Heaberlin sets one scene outside the Death House in Huntsville on the night of an execution. Two groups, separated by police, are demonstrating. Some sing hymns, pray or silently hold candles. The others, former police officers on Harleys, make their engines roar like thunder so the condemned man will hear and know they savor his death. (Tessa glimpses the grieving mother “who raced to a morgue tonight. Who hoped, for the first time in years, to touch the body of her son, a killer, while it was still warm.”)
“Black-Eyed Susans” is ultimately an exercise in the expert, agonizing withholding of facts. Who is menacing Tessa? Will the seemingly innocent Goodwin die? If he is innocent, who is the serial killer? Will he — or she — strike again? The answers are as astonishing as they are finally believable. Heaberlin’s work calls to mind that of Gillian Flynn. Both writers published impressive early novels that were largely overlooked, and then one that couldn’t be: Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and now Heaberlin’s “Black-Eyed Susans.” Don’t miss it.
Patrick Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for Book World.