Black Eyed Susans – Julia Heaberlin

Published 13 August 2015 

by Penguin/Michael Joseph

17 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 to put a dangerous criminal behind bars – or so she thought.

Now decades later, the black eyed susans (yellow flowers on the cover) planted outside Tessa’s bedroom window seem to be a message from a killer who should be safely in prison. Haunted by fragmented memories of the night she was attacked and terrified for her own teenage daughter’s safety, can Tessa uncover the truth about the killer before its too late?

* * *

This is YET another book that has been marketed for fans of ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Girl on a Train’ (yawn, yawn – why do they continue to do this?).  It seems that any new book in the psychological thriller genre is automatically compared to Gone Girl – why can’t a new book be marketed on its own merits?  

The story is told in alternating chapters by two Tessa’s – one (Tessie) a 17 year old survivor of an attack by a serial killer and the other, an older Tessa with a 14 year daughter.  She is scarred, both physically and mentally by the attack, and all these years later she still takes extreme safety measures – especially where her daughter Charlie is concerned. As the story progresses we find out why she still doesn’t feel safe, even though the attacker (her ‘monster’) is behind bars and awaiting execution on Death Row. 

This is very much a slow burner of a story and in fact it took me a long while to get into it.  Although the chapters were quite short, initially I found the constant changing of PoV between the young and older Tessa confusing, particularly as so many other characters (psychotherapists and lawyers) from each period were involved but I’m glad I carried on as it did eventually come together and I was rewarded by an intriguing and twisty read.

If you are a reader who likes graphic violence in their serial killer thrillers you won’t find it here.  This story is very much character driven – we only meet Tessa after the attack when she has been found, barely alive, in a grave of human bones, partially covered by the flowering Black Eyed Susans. The story focuses more on Tessa’s unreliable and fragmented memories of the attack and the resulting pyschological trauma (for example, she believes she still hears the voices of the dead ‘Susans’) together with the question of whether the right man is in prison. 

I didn’t find Tessa wholly convincing at first and I was sure that she was holding back information – after all she lied about certain things as a 17 year old. Although she testifies for the prosecution at the trial of Terrell Darcy Goodwin, her attacker, she later has her doubts about his guilt and is persuaded by his appeal team to help by recalling her memories, as the date set for his execution becomes closer.  We are then taken into the world of mitochondrial DNA and forensics when the team attempt to identify the killer and the other Susans – and, although I am one of the least scientifically minded people in the world, I found this aspect fascinating and so interesting. This has clearly been very well researched and fits into the narrative seamlessly, without giving that textbook feel.  

There is another strand to the story, a mystery involving Lydia. Lydia was Tessa’s best friend from childhood and one of her most ardent supporters during the trial.   

Although I had my doubts about one or two characters, I really didn’t guess the outcome and the twisty ending came as a complete surprise. The book isn’t all about darkness however and some relief came from the wonderful characters of Charlie, Tessa’s confident and bubbly teenage daughter and Effie, the eccentric and confused next door neighbour.   

This is a very well written thriller with a cleverly structured plot and the amount of research undertaken and the consultations with experts in the fields of DNA and the death penalty is clearly reflected in the story.  

My thanks to Francesca and the publisher for the paperback copy to review.

About the author:

Julia Heaberlin is the author of Lie Still and Playing Dead. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked at the Fort-Worth Star Telegram, The Detroit News, and The Dallas Morning News. She grew up in Texas and lives with her family near Dallas/Fort Worth.

You can find out more from the author’s website, and by following on Twitter



2 thoughts on “Black Eyed Susans – Julia Heaberlin”

  • Great review Karen, this sounds like a book for me. I'm with you when with regards to the constant "If you liked Gone Girl and Girl on a Train you'll love this" I've read both of these books and although I enjoyed Girl on a Train, to my mind there is no comparison between the two and Gone Girl is by far the better read. No two people ever read the same book and who are these people to tell me that I WILL love this book!

    • Thank you Neats, I hope you like it and look forward to seeing your thoughts. I get so tired of the 'Gone Girl' comparison each time a new psychological thriller is published. Each book is different and should be judged on its own.

I do love to read any comments 😊

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