In 1955, YA author Mary Downing Hahn’s town was rocked by the violent murder of two girls she knew. The murders went unsolved, and the incident haunted her for years afterwards. Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls is her fictional exploration of the event and its aftermath.
When the story opens in 1956, it’s with a party the night before, a joyous end-of-school-year-beginning-of-summer celebration with teenagers sneaking off to do the things teenagers have always been told not to do—drinking, smoking, fooling around. Nora, Ellie, Cheryl, and Bobbi Jo are there with friends, never suspecting the events to come. The next morning, Cheryl and Bobbi Jo are shot on their way to school, and nothing will be the same after. Buddy, Cheryl’s ex-boyfriend, is brought in for questioning and cleared of the crime, but never can escape the stigma or suspicion. Nora, through whom most of the story is narrated, is the only person who believes his innocence, while she struggles to reconcile the pat answers given by her Catholic faith with the horrible events that have altered everything.
At first blush, the novel seems like it should be the set-up for a suspense novel. It opens with the perspective of “Mister Death,” as the killer dubs himself, planning his crime. Readers hoping for more of that suspense will be disappointed, as the focus is on the aftermath. Instead, it is firmly a novel of young adult themes—trying to understand the world when everything has been violently altered. Even as she grieves for her friends who will never grow old and experience life, Nora also tries to figure out what comes next after high school, whether she is damned for her lapsing faith, whether she wants to kiss a boy when the timing seems right, what to do about friendships that are fading with distance and the avoidance of painful shared memories. She feels authentic.
Hahn also explores other characters through diary entries and separate viewpoint chapters, providing a panoramic view. While pop culture and fashion references place the story firmly in the 1950s, the themes resonate in a world still shaken by violent events that leave people wondering “why?” In that sense, it tells an unfortunately timeless story.