I've been thinking about Mary Downing Hahn's mister death's blue-eyed girls for a long time. I read it a couple of months ago and was very attracted to the story. Based on a real double murder that occurred in the author's hometown when she was in high school, it's about two teenage girls shot and killed in June 1955 in a park near Washington DC. In her Afterword, Hahn explains how she knew both girls, went to the crime scene that morning and how a boy she knew was taken in for questioning and although released, largely condemned by the community. (The murders were sort of solved in 2000.1 )
Hahn wanted to explore the impact of the murders on the accused boy and so she sets up the narrative to show potential murderers (this is all fiction she makes clear) who knew the girls and then proceeds from the crime to the accusation and the fallout. The story follows a classmate of the dead girls, Nora, who also has a fledgling relationship with the accused boy (Buddy). The narrative moves from the murderer's perspective ("Mister Death") to the accused boy to Nora to diary entries from the dead girls. It's rather disjointed and never quite comes together with both Nora and Buddy remaining two-dimensional characters for all that they propel the plot. In the end, the murders are unsolved, Buddy leaves, Nora suffers from her association with him and the whole town continues to believe that the wrong person committed the crime. It's a very unsettling ending which I guess is the point - no one ever truly solved the real crime and at her 50 year high school reunion Hahn's classmates still thought the accused boy was guilty.
There is a story here - you can't help but see a story here - but I don't think Hahn has framed it the best way. The insertion of the accused muddies the story; as no one knew anything at all at the time (and still really don't), it confuses the plot and made me wonder if I was reading a murder mystery where the criminal would eventually get caught or a look at how society handles a violent act in their midst. She alludes in the end to thoughts about Columbine and other examples of teen crime and I wondered if maybe she was trying to make a statement about disturbed teens or even bullying by including the "Mister Death" character. Thinking about all of this pulled my attention from Buddy's dilemma and that only got worse as Nora's feeling kept getting in the way as well. I didn't know if I was looking at a romance or a coming-of-age novel or what. And blaming Buddy just seemed...convenient. It was as if Hahn took the crime and created fill-in-the-blank characters to fit it. I couldn't help but think that someone like Stephen King could have done a lot more with this...or maybe this needed to be a mystery and Nora needed to solve it or Buddy did or Nora and Buddy needed to solve it together.
Or maybe something - anything - just needed to happen here.
Clearly Hahn has been haunted by the murder for her entire life and that is something I can respect. But if that's the reason why she wrote this book (and her Afterword suggests it is), then maybe it should have been a novel for adults about a woman haunted by such events from her youth. That might mean it was a short story or novella if she didn't have enough to write a full length novel. Or maybe it should have been nonfiction, or an essay or an article. Hell, maybe it should have been a poetry collection.
What has struck me in the months since I read mister death's blue-eyed girls is all that I wish the book had been. It was a frustrating reading experience for what it promised but couldn't deliver. There is something here, something I can't let go of but it's not enough and that's what makes it more disappointment than anything else.
1There was a weird confession of who did it more than ten years ago - but it seems sketchy at best to me even though it looks like the police were willing to close the case based on that information. Hahn relied heavily upon that info for her plot.
2See the original news article - with mention of the Buddy character being taken in for questioning here.