Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense (August 11, 2015) by Julia Heaberlin

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of SuspenseBlack-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense, by Julia Heaberlin, is a book which was both more, and less, than I had anticipated.
This thriller is compared (as is everything else these days, insomuch as the comparison now seems almost meaningless) to the novels of Gillian Flynn. It is also compared to the novels of Laura Lippman.
I’m a fan of both Flynn and Lippman, but I think they write very different kinds of novels.
In this case, I think that both comparisons were apt, and it is in part because Black-Eyed Susans does have similarities to the work of two dissimilar authors that it is not entirely successful.
Black-Eyed Susans has a wonderful sense of place; it is set in Texas, which author Heaberlin clearly knows intimately and loves. In this way, Black-Eyed Susans reminded me of the southern-gothic atmosphere that Flynn crafts so well.
However, Black-Eyed Susans is much less dark in tone than Flynn’s novels. Instead, it feels wholesome in the same way that Lippman’s mysteries do. In the end, Black-Eyed Susans felt like a psychological-thriller that chickened out when it came to going to any truly “dark places.”
In a nutshell, here are a few other things that really stood out to me about Black-Eyed Susans:
I loved how Heaberlin included facts and idiosyncrasies about the Texas justice system. Her depiction of the death penalty in Texas was both enlightening and disturbing, an intimate look at what the town of Huntsville, with its “death house,” is really like.
Heaberlin’s description is based on research and interviews with experts (police, forensics experts, defense attorneys, advocates) and the novel never seems voyeuristic. Instead, in Black-Eyed Susans, Heaberlin gives insight into a powerful, disturbing reality that most of us know little about.
What I didn’t like as much was the way Heaberlin worked out the part of the plot which centered around our unreliable narrator Tessa’s buried memories.
The story flips between Tessa as an adult, counting down the days to her convicted “monster’s” execution, and her memories from childhood, as she first recovered from being assaulted by a serial killer. In the end, I found the explanation of what really happened to Tessa to be a bit of a letdown. The resolution detracted from the power of some earlier scenes in the novel.
Also, I was disappointed that the “fairytale” element of the story was never fully developed.
Ultimately, I think Heaberlin had two or three separate (and very intriguing) ideas for the type of story she wanted to tell. I hope as she continues writing, she develops more tonal clarity and confidence.
I highly recommend Black-Eyed Susans, especially for the fascinating peek into forensics, DNA, and the criminal justice system today. And I think many readers, will, like I did, really enjoy some of the wonderful and complex main characters, like Tessa, her daughter Charlie, their eccentric neighbor Effie, and the team of advocates who made them, and me as a reader, see the world in a new way.
Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for my arc of Black-Eyed Susans: a Novel of Suspense. This review also appears on Goodreads and Facebook.

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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

7948230 (2)Some books seem to come from a place of planning, plotting, and editing, and others seem inspired. Happily, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin, is one of the latter. From the first page of this southern-gothic-noir novel, I was smiling to myself with the pleasure of finding a really good story. And as the novel progressed, I found myself caring deeply about the characters, and ultimately, feeling very satisfied with the resolution. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, is a story of prejudice, cruelty, poverty, and the way that rumor can destroy lives in a small community. But it is also a story of progress, and of how the devastation of the past can be healed. In that way, it is a story that is personal to the main characters, but also contains a message of hope regarding the larger issues of injustice and racism that are part of the history of the United States.

When Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter begins, we are introduced to Larry Ott, a poor white man who lives alone in his family’s farmhouse in rural Mississippi. His father is dead, his mother is in a nursing home. Larry tends their home carefully and lightly, keeping it simple and clean, watching the TV shows that his parents would have watched, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken for his meals, and spending his free time alone reading. Larry is the town outcast, in the tradition of Harper Lee’s Boo Radley. Twenty five years ago, when he was in high school, he was accused of murdering a neighboring girl named Cindy. Her body has never been found, and although Larry has consistently protested his innocence, in the eyes of the community, he is a probable rapist and murderer.   The other main character is Silas, or “32,” the black town constable, and Larry’s one-time friend for three months before the disappearance of Cindy occurred. When the story begins, another teenaged girl has gone missing, and the community suspects that after 25 years, Larry has committed another murder. Larry arrives home from work early one afternoon and encounters a man in a zombie mask in his living room. The man shoots Larry at close range in the chest.   These violent events are the impetus for Larry, Silas, and the community to begin to investigate the past.

The story alternates between the present, and the events that took place during Larry and Silas’s brief friendship 25 years before.  As the reader, we want to know whether Larry was guilty of murder, and why he and Silas stopped being friends. And in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, we do find out the answers to the mystery of what really happened 25 years before.   But even more satisfying and addictive than this is the way in which Tom Franklin creates characters who we care deeply about. Larry’s ostracism by the community, his loneliness, and his yearning for friendship, are heartbreaking.  Silas’s struggle with his guilt over letting down his one-time friend, and his battle to find the courage to make the past right, are compelling. Both main characters are imperfect, and do things that make the reader cringe. But at the same time, they are deeply human. In them, we see our own frailties, our own need to be accepted, to be understood, to be loved.

Franklin, who lives in Mississippi himself, tackles the issue of racism with courage and the gravity that it deserves. I found this novel especially fascinating, because I went to college in the South.  In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin writes about race relations in the present-day South in a way which rings true to the experience I had of it while I was there. In this way, I think that a story can sometimes be more powerful in helping people understand an issue than a lecture or logical explanation.  So I would recommend Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter as a novel which is helpful to understanding race relations in the South over the past 30 years.  In this way, without being didactic or punitive, I think the story is an important contribution to the understanding of how far we have come, and how much farther we need to go as a nation. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter looks unflinchingly at difficult and complex issues. But in the end, it proposes that our shared history binds us together more firmly than it pulls us apart. Above all, Silas and Larry’s story shows that forgiveness and healing is possible, even when horrible things have occurred in the past. Without being saccharine, the novel leaves the reader with a sense of joy. In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin shares with us a South that he clearly loves, and that he believes has progressed and will continue to progress in the future.

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