Review: Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

Margot McGovern reviews Julia Heaberlin’s psychological thriller, Black-Eyed Susans. 

Tessie grew up in a fairytale, both grim and Grimm: an enchanted castle, a dead mother and endless adventures. But one day the fairytale took an unexpected twist and Tessie found herself surrounded by flowers—black-eyed susans—in a shallow grave filled with dead girls’ bones.

With the help of a top psychiatrist and her best friend, well-read and morbidly fanciful Lydia, Tessie fights to put the Susans’ killer behind bars. The problem is, she can’t remember the killer’s face, and while a man is sent to prison, every few years someone plants black-eyed susans where only Tessie would think to look.

Eighteen years later, Tessa has a new name and a new life. Her fourteen-year-old daughter is even more feisty and athletic than she was at that age, and her reputation as an artist is on the rise. However, the man accused of killing the Susans is facing execution and a sinister crop of black-eyed susans has just appeared beneath Tessa’s bedroom window.

With a good lawyer, a forensics expert and a child psychiatrist at her side, Tessa has one last chance to ‘walk the crooked path to [her] childhood’ and face her monster before an innocent man is put to death and the real killer strikes again.

Before I get down to the nitty gritty, Black-Eyed Susans is a fun, page-flippin’ thriller. I binge read it in two days. While I was fairly certain I had the killer pegged early on (and I was right), Heaberlin is a compelling storyteller, and I wanted to see how the plot played out. If you’re looking for a suspenseful, entertaining read, Black-Eyed Susans is an excellent pick and offers a little more than your average crime novel.

The ‘amnesiac narrator’ sub-genre of thriller (to which Heaberlin’s novel belongs) is always a gamble. On the one hand it opens the way for the author to have all kinds of fun with the ‘return of the repressed’ theme. Things can get spooky. Supernatural. There’s scope for exploring surreal psychological landscapes and playing with symbols. It’s not everyone’s bag, but I dig it. On the other hand, it puts the reader and the narrator in a race: who can put the pieces together first to catch the killer? An author’s got to be damn good at plotting to pull it off, and Heaberlin doesn’t turn any cheap tricks. There’s no ‘surprise, I conveniently “forgot” all the essential information and neglected to foreshadow’. If anything, there’s too much foreshadowing. The narrative moves between past and present: Tessie, the traumatised girl, and Tessa, the woman still struggling to move on. Neither can remember the man who dumped them in a shallow grave with the other Susans, but both are facing a count down: Teesie is preparing to testify against the man she’s led to believe is the Black-Eyed Susan Killer, Tessa to get the same man off death row and catch the real murderer. And both are haunted by ghosts of the other Susans and their cryptic clues. It’s a technique that works well right up to the end when things get a little rushed and tangled.

Black-Eyed Susans is part Thomas Harris-esque psychological thriller and part Gothic fairytale. The combination has potential; however, the balance is off and the story feels unfocused, as though Heaberlin couldn’t decide what kind of book she wanted to write. The story is too rooted in the real and the Gothic details appear as decorative follies tacked on to an otherwise sound narrative structure. Likewise, the fairytale elements are enchanting, promising, but never lead anywhere. For example, following Tessie’s mother’s death, Tessie’s grandfather builds a castle for Tessie and her little brother. It looms large in the book’s opening pages:

The house sits topsy-turvy on the crest of a hill, like a kid built it out of blocks and toilet paper rolls. The chimney tilts in a comical direction, and turrets shoot off each side like missiles about to take off. I used to sleep inside one of them on summer nights and pretend I was rocketing through space. More than my little brother liked, I had climbed out one of the windows onto the tiled roof and inched my scrappy knees toward the widow’s peak, grabbing sharp gargoyle ears and window ledges for balance. At the top, I leaned against the curlicued railing ti survey the flat, endless Texas landscape and the stars of my kingdom. I played my piccolo to the night birds. The air rustled my thin white cotton nightgown like I was a strange dove alit the top of a castle. It sounds like a fairy tale, and it was.

Such potential! There’s a whole book inside those walls, but very little is made of it. Likewise, Tessie’s family take hesitant steps into the story and quickly retreat, while her best friend, Lydia, begins as a bit player, then leaps centre stage. It’s also a narrative of ‘enchanted objects’, as Tessa herself observes: ‘Like the Brothers Grimm, I ascribed power to an ordinary, innocent object. Oh, the hell that can be wrought from a hand mirror. A single pea. A one-eyed flower.’ And yet, many of Tessa’s talismans prove false leads. Misdirection, perhaps, but it comes off as scattered.

In addition to ‘enchanted objects’, Heaberlin fills her tale with a dizzying array of literary allusions, making reference to the works of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier and Donna Tartt, to name a few. But like the fairy tale elements, these references feel undercooked, eg: this is a creepy murder story and Poe is the father of creepy murder stories, so Tessie’s best friend/amateur detective, Lydia, will read Poe. While we’re at it, Tessa should read The Goldfinch at some point because art! Secrets! Dead Mothers! Guilt! And ‘Hearts that can’t be trusted’! Also, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is a suspense thriller with a ‘return of the repressed’ theme and ‘monstrous’ flowers. Tessie has dissociative amnesia and is buried alive with dead girls’ bones and flowers—gosh, darn, you guys, it’s practically the same book! Ergo: many references to Rebecca much necessary to ensure the reader understands this is not a coincidence. These bold allusions are a brash reminder: this is not just a regular thriller, this is a literary thriller. So, if you aren’t familiar with the aforementioned authors’ work, prepare to feel excluded. If you are, congratulations: you’ve found the trail of bread crumbs leading straight to the killer.

While Black-Eyed Susans is far more complex than your run-of-the-mill whodunnit, it still hinges on a big reveal. Given all the fairy tale foreshadowing, I was gunning for something spectacular, waiting for all the pieces to click. Perhaps I set myself up for disappointment. There’s so much going on in this story that the only path to resolution is last minute DRAAAAAMMMAAAA!!! Heaberlin doesn’t hold back and I met the final pages with one eyebrow raised.

I’m being critical because I really liked this book—I loved the characters, the Gothic touches, the care Heaberlin took with her research—I just wanted more. It’s a good thriller, but with another draft and a firm editorial hand it could be incredible. Black-Eyed Susans is Hearbin’s third book, and I suspect she’s just hitting her stride. I’ll be keeping an eye out for her next title.

Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of Black-Eyed Susans in exchange for an honest review.

Black-eyed susans cover

Black-Eyed Susans is available via Amazon (Kindle), Book Depository and Kobo.

If you enjoyed Black-Eyed Susans, these titles might also tickle your fancy:

In a dark dark wood cover The Girl on the train cover Night Film
In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware, available:

Read the Lectito review. 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, available:

Read the Lectito review. 

Night Film by Marisha Pessl, available:

Read the Lectito review. 

The Ghost Network Deep Water The Woman in Black cover
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato, available:

Read the Lectito review. 

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith, available:

Read the Lectito review. 


The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, available:

Read the Lectito review. 

Like what you see? Keep in touch:

Twitter facebook-official-icon-3_jpg Instagram goodreads icon circle-64 Pinterest

And get the latest from Lectito delivered to your inbox. 

sign up