Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls by Mary Downing Hahn
UPCOMING Publication Date: April 17, 2012
Publisher: Clarion Books
Target Audience: Young Adult
Format read: Paperback ARC from ALA. (Thank you!)
Summary: Summer is so close that Nora and her friends can practically taste it. It’s 1956 and the kids are dancing their hearts out to Elvis and sneaking some beer the night before the last day of school. With so many plans to look forward to, everyone is feeling carefree and even Nora, a classic good girl, is feeling adventurous. That carefree feeling soon vanishes when Bobbi Jo and Cheryl, two girls from their group, are found dead in the woods the next morning. The fact that Nora and her best friend should have been with the two girls that morning just adds to the devastation. Everyone is sure that Cheryl’s jealous ex-boyfriend is the culprit and this is just the beginning of the fear and helplessness that begins to consume Nora’s life. Will life as she knew it ever be the same again?
During one of my non-fiction writing classes in college, we were required to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Have you read it? It’s the account of the 1959 murders of a family — Dad, Mom, sister, brother — in a small farm town in Kansas. The book includes the gory details of the murder, several interviews with the convicted murderers, and the aftermath experienced by the town residents. Published in 1966, In Cold Blood is known as the premiere book in the true crime genre, the “original” non-fiction novel.
And I was obsessed with it.
I watched all the movies and did plenty of extra research, even though the whole story scared the shit out of me. Two men coming into your house and shooting you all in the head. It’s not something that happened every day but to me, the point was: it could happen. Capote was able to spin a news story into some kind of magic trick, a place where cold-blooded murderers were depicted as human beings. You felt like you were reading fiction until you remembered that it was all true.
Calling In Cold Blood one of my favorite books of all time may seem out of character for the girl who is surrounded by YA novels on a daily basis, sure. That’s probably why I didn’t think Mister Death would do much for me. It was a complete surprise when it woke the stirrings I had once felt reading In Cold Blood. Although, instead of a book chronicling a real crime, this one, while inspired by a similar situation the author experienced, was completely fictionalized. But it didn’t matter that it was fiction. The emotions were raw, and the story was gripping (without being over-dramatized). It was as good as real.
Here we have a group of teenagers planning to have the summer of their lives when disaster strikes: two of their friends are found murdered in the woods and nothing will be the same again. Most of the story is told through the eyes of Nora, a self-admitted good girl, lover of God, and ever so self-conscious and and over-analytical. While she was friends with the victims (Bobbi Jo and Cheryl), she lives on the other side of town and knows them mostly through her best friend, Ellie. (There are many supporting characters in this story.) Maybe this is shocking but she is most affected by these events because a) if they had not been running late, she and Ellie would have been in the woods too and b) how is it that they were just dancing all night a few hours ago and now these girls are dead? (ala John Lennon’s “Life’s what happens when you are making other plans.” and Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking: “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”)
Clearly, Nora is going through some heavy stuff. Her group of friends all disperse for the summer, leaving her very alone. She’s filled with dread, “insane thoughts” about God’s existence, her own commitment to religion, and most importantly, her own unpopular belief about who did not commit the crime. She is basically spinning out of control and I was hanging on to every word, feeling her heaviness, her fright, and uncertainty.
“Which is worse, I wonder, atheism or insanity?”
Dispersed between Nora’s chapters are snippets from her best friend, a boy she likes, the boy wrongly accused of a crime, and even chapters told by the killer himself, only known as Mister Death. I loved this. Hearing what the other characters were going through, the haunting words from the one who pulled the trigger, and even words from the victims themselves. Tensions build, secrets are spilled, and more comes out in the open. These chapters could have certainly been jarring, but their placement made sense and never disconnected me from Nora. She was never too far away.
You should know… this is less of a whodunit and more of a psychological analysis of the affects of a traumatic event and how it affects others for years to come. If all true crime dramas dug this deep and pulled out such authentic actions and emotions, I would certainly be inclined to read more of them.
I passionately believe this book, while targeted to the YA audience, has the meat, the themes, and the human insight to be received by a wider audience with open arms. While reading it and now that I have finished, I am more than positive Mister Death could find its way to many kinds of readers. These unexpected events and the reactions these characters have to them are relatable on so many levels. While no one wants to imagine a similar tragedy occurring in their life, it is difficult not to think “what if” while reading Hahn’s engrossing words.