Monday, July 23, 2012

Book Review: Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls by Mary Downing Hahn

Based on an actual crime in 1955, this YA novel is at once a mystery and a coming-of-age story. The brutal murder of two teenage girls on the last day of Nora Cunningham's junior year in high school throws Nora into turmoil. Her certainties, friendships, religion, her prudence, her resolve to find a boyfriend taller than she is - are shaken or cast off altogether.

Most people in Elmgrove, Maryland, share the comforting conviction that Buddy Novak, who had every reason to want his ex-girlfriend dead, is responsible for the killings. Nora agrees at first, then begins to doubt Buddy's guilt, and finally comes to believe him innocent - the lone dissenting voice in Elmgrove.

Told from several different perspectives, including that of the murderer, Mister Death's Blue-Eyed Girls is a suspenseful page-turner with a powerful human drama at its core.

Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is absolutely stunning novel, but I did have to adjust my expectations a bit while reading.  I grew up loving Mary Downing Hahn’s creepy, mysterious ghost stories, and while I realized this book is for an older audience and doesn’t contain paranormal elements, I still expected a mystery/suspense type read.  The title, cover, blurb, and the first few chapters all support this expectation, and I actually think the marketing here does the book a bit of a disservice, since readers expecting a mystery or thriller are likely to be disappointed.  This novel is really a dark, subtle coming-of-age story that drew me in completely and ended up being so much more than I’d expected.

Even though the story is set in 1956 and the heroine, Nora, lives in a very different world than our modern one, I completely identified with her as she dealt with the aftermath of her friends’ deaths, her new religious doubts, her depression, and the general difficulties of being a teenager no matter what era you live in.  I especially felt for her as she wondered why she questions and is unwilling to accept things that others take for granted, and I loved her passion for poetry and the way poems were woven in throughout the novel.

I also loved the inclusion of Buddy’s point of view and the way his character developed throughout the novel.  The early scenes in which he’s questioned by police, pre-Miranda law, are particularly nail-biting.  His transformation in the eyes of the reader is total and very convincing.
This book is set in a (fictional, I believe?) suburb of Baltimore, and since I grew up in Baltimore, it was fun to recognize names and places and imagine what they would have been like back in the 1950s.  Much of the novel brought to mind my parents’ stories of growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s and 60s.

What impressed me most about this novel was that, while the murders occur very early on in the novel, Hahn manages to build up the emotional impact of their deaths over the course of the book so that, by the end, I was nearly in tears.  It takes a very skilled author to make us feel like we know and mourn for characters who aren’t physically present for most of the pages.  Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is a haunting novel in the deepest, truest sense.


  1. I enjoy a good haunting novel. Thanks for reviewing this, S.C. :)