Eighteen years ago, Tessa Cartwright became known as the only surviving victim of a serial killer.
The Texas teen woke up in a field of black-eyed Susans “with a strangled college student and a stack of human bones” but no memory of how she got there or who put her there.
Fast-forward to the present, and Tessa is an artist, living in Fort Worth with her teenage daughter, and the man she once helped identify as the killer is about to be executed on Death Row.
But a string of new evidence, a determined defense attorney, Tessa’s own doubts about her memory and the disturbing appearance of freshly planted black-eyed Susans outside her bedroom window have Tessa wondering: Did she make a mistake and ID the wrong guy?
If so, she has two pressing problems: Can she help set the wrongfully accused man free? And if the real killer isn’t behind bars, could he be setting his sights on her and her daughter, Charlie?
In her brilliant new novel of suspense, Black-Eyed Susans, Julia Heaberlin keeps Tessa, her protagonist, in constant, page-turning peril while also leading the reader down paths of thoughtful exploration into the worlds of child psychiatry, death-penalty law and forensic DNA.
The book is a delicious mix of well-researched facts, creative plot twists and a likable main character who deftly walks the line between someone who you can relate to as she helps her daughter search through dirty laundry for a team jersey and someone whose mind is a mystery even to herself.
This is Heaberlin’s third novel, her first in hardcover, and her best. A former editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Detroit News, Heaberlin brings her remarkable skills as a reporter and editor to this work, digging deep into fascinating, topical issues for her own research, and then pulling out only the most interesting facts and details for her readers.
But it’s her emerging talent as a masterful storyteller that sets this book apart. As the plot twists along, racing back and forth between past and present, revealing bits and pieces of the truth through the haze of her protagonist’s battered and bruised memory, Heaberlin maintains her tight grip on narrative control, expertly maintaining the delightful, nail-biting suspense by weaving those facts and details seamlessly into plot-forwarding action, compelling characters and believable dialogue.
Tessa’s search for answers leads her, for example, to Dr. Joanna Seger at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth. Jo and her team are working on extracting mitochondrial DNA from the bones of the victims Tessa was found with, popularly called “the black-eyed Susans.”
Once the DNA is extracted, the information goes into national databases of missing persons. The bones then go on to a forensic geologist in Galveston who will use isotope analysis to try to match them to a region, as our bones, it turns out, retain the memory of where we have lived.
As Jo explains, “We are so much a part of the earth, Tessa. Of the ancient past. We store strontium isotopes in our bones, in the same ratio as in the rocks and soil and water and plants and animals where we live.”
It’s a heady bit of astounding cutting-edge science, still in its infancy, and its use in Heaberlin’s plot is intriguing.
Heaberlin also takes advantage of the 18 years that have elapsed since Tessa’s trauma to develop her character beyond the scope expected in many thrillers. In the years since she was abducted, Tessa has carved out a world that in many ways is surprisingly normal, and Heaberlin deftly adds bits of humor into some of these scenes, like the aforementioned laundry debacle:
I find Charlie in her underwear, hair slapping around like wet red string. She is tossing her room, a rabbit’s nest of dirty clothes.
“Which jersey?” I ask patiently. She owns two practice uniforms and four game uniforms. The uniforms were “required to play,” cost $435, and three of them looked exactly alike to me.
“Blue, blue, blue, didn’t you hear me? If I don’t have it for the scrimmage, Coach will make me run. He might make the whole team run because of me.” Coach. No last name necessary. Like God.
Tessa’s relationship with Charlie, her romantic involvements, her thoughts about the larger world beyond her own problems (“the silvery light cascading on buxom masterpieces” at the Kimbell), and even her frequent references to food (“a frosty schooner of beer at the Flying Fish,” “our late-night marathon of Walking Dead, popcorn, and cheddar cheese chips”) build for readers a sense of trust in Tessa’s character even as those readers must continue to question the state of Tessa’s mind.
One of the most important relationships in the book is between Tessa and her best friend, Lydia. Again, Heaberlin effectively uses scenes from the past and the present to gradually build the story of Lydia and her mysterious, even somewhat creepy, family.
We also learn early on that Lydia and Tessa had a big breakup and haven’t spoken since they were 17. Why the friendship fell apart and Lydia’s role in Tessa’s life is another layer of plot that adds to the suspense and the eventual satisfying outcome of the book.
Setting is important to any novel, and Black-Eyed Susans is firmly rooted in modern-day, suburban Fort Worth. From the perspective of someone who lived for 20-some years in Texas, I think Heaberlin gets it right.
She gently plays with clichés (yes, Texans drink a lot of Dr Pepper and, yes, sometimes Texas grammar ain’t quite right), but she also shows a true affection for a place rich with art, culture, scientific investigation, good food and a sky like “a bell of glass.”
This isn’t a perfect book. I found some inconsistencies with the narrative’s timeline that had me puzzled and scribbling my own timeline on the inside cover. I didn’t understand why 14-year-old Charlie would be doing calculus, if I read that correctly.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t disclose that I worked in the author’s features department during her time at the Star-Telegram, where she made me a better editor and writer, often returning my work with a note on the top to the effect of “mbmf,” her shorthand for “make better, make funnier.”
While I am sure my opinion of the book cannot help but be affected by this relationship, I also feel confident that if I didn’t like her book, she would want me to say so, because as relatively thick-skinned journalists, the desire for truth rules.
Black-Eyed Susans is a breakout book that I think puts Heaberlin solidly into the category of great contemporary thriller writers. So yes, it’s cliché, but the third time is the charm.
by Julia Heaberlin
Meet the author: Julia Heaberlin will discuss and sign her book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Hulen Center Barnes & Noble, 4801 Overton Ridge Blvd., 817-346-2368. On Aug. 19, she will discuss and sign her book at an Indulge magazine-sponsored event, 6:30 p.m. at Umbra Winery, 415 S. Main St., Grapevine. RSVP to email@example.com or 817-390-7376.