I hadn’t read the blurb for Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll until after I finished reading it so didn’t know it was inspired by a true story (and even then I just assumed it was someone with whom I wasn’t familiar, not realising it was based on Ted Bundy’s last murders). It explains why Knoll tells us almost nothing about the killer. Including his name. She calls him The Defendant. And I very much appreciated that this book is about his victims and those left behind rather than the killer.
I read Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive when it came out in 2015 and more recently watched the Netflix movie based on the book. I also read and reviewed her second book, The Favourite Sister. She writes unlikeable characters well. Almost too well perhaps. Though here her disdain lies with some of the male characters introduced rather than her female leads.Bright Young Women
by Jessica Knoll
Published by Macmillan
Genres: Thriller / Suspense
January 1978. A serial killer has terrorized women across the Pacific Northwest, but his existence couldn’t be further from the minds of the vibrant young women at the top sorority on Florida State University’s campus in Tallahassee. Tonight is a night of promise, excitement, and desire, but Pamela Schumacher, president of the sorority, makes the unpopular decision to stay home—a decision that unwittingly saves her life. Startled awake at 3 a.m. by a strange sound, she makes the fateful decision to investigate. What she finds behind the door is a scene of implausible violence—two of her sisters dead; two others, maimed. Over the next few days, Pamela is thrust into a terrifying mystery inspired by the crime that’s captivated public interest for more than four decades.
On the other side of the country, Tina Cannon has found peace in Seattle after years of hardship. A chance encounter brings twenty-five-year-old Ruth Wachowsky into her life, a young woman with painful secrets of her own, and the two form an instant connection. When Ruth goes missing from Lake Sammamish State Park in broad daylight, surrounded by thousands of beachgoers on a beautiful summer day, Tina devotes herself to finding out what happened to her. When she hears about the tragedy in Tallahassee, she knows it’s the man the papers refer to as the All-American Sex Killer. Determined to make him answer for what he did to Ruth, she travels to Florida on a collision course with Pamela—and one last impending tragedy.
Because I hadn’t known this was based on the final stages of Ted Bundy’s murderous spree and had no idea that the judge called him a Bright Young Man, I’d missed that reference. I read this whole thing as a work of fiction. Not knowing Knoll was fictionalising historical facts, which I think she does well as I had no idea what was fact or fiction.
Given my lack of context I wondered why it didn’t read more like a ‘whodunnit’ focussed around the hunt for the killer, instead trying to tie the murders to previous ones all while knowing the perpetrator – who’d apparently escaped police custody twice (which I certainly did not know of the real case).
Instead this focuses on the aftermath of the brutal crimes. Hard-working sorority president Pamela is staying in on Saturday in 1978 night while others go out to party. She’s awoken hours later and notices a light on downstairs so goes to turn it off – catching sight of a man leaving the building. Initially she thinks it’s the off-on boyfriend of her best friend but quickly realises it isn’t. But she catches a good glimpse of him and ultimately becomes the eyewitness to tie The Defendant to the crimes committed that night.
I’m not sure how closely this reflects the truth but thought Bundy was more of a psychopath who held onto women and tortured them, rather than beating them to death quickly and brazenly, which he attempts at the sorority house.
Soon after the incident Pamela is approached by Tina who believes her friend Ruth was also victim of the same killer – though her body hadn’t ever been recovered. Because Knoll goes to great lengths to refrain from identifying the killer or make this book about him, I think it suffers a little as we there’s limited backstory on how and why she believes Ruth’s disappearance is linked. There is only ever vague reference to the killer’s previous crimes.
We then travel back to 1974 where Ruth meets Tina at a grief support group. Knoll does a good job at unpacking Ruth’s story. She’s returned to her mother’s following a separation from her husband though their mother / daughter relationship is not particularly healthy. Knoll doesn’t initially share why, or why Ruth feels unable to mourn her father’s death as she should, but deftly doles that out as Ruth’s friendship with Tina grows.
This book actually unfolds in three timeframes: there’s Ruth’s story which is perfectly timed with sad poignance; Pamela’s in 1978-79 at the time of the attack on the sorority house through to the killer going to trial; and then Pamela again in 2021 after receiving correspondence from someone who thinks there are still secrets to be revealed.
I felt the 2021 sections were a little far apart in the book and I forgot what was happening each time they appeared. Despite that the triple timeline works well and I liked the way we dipped in and out of Pamela’s life in particular, and seeing how it progressed.
I can’t decide if I wish I hadn’t known (in advance) this was based on a true story as I liked the story itself and the different focus it took (on a witness) – though was confused by absent chunks of plot (the killer’s past crimes, any investigation, their capture, their motivation). Not required of course, because we were supposed to know that. Although I don’t read non-fiction so might have avoided [the book completely] had I known it was based on fact.
But knowing it is I guess helps me understand why it’s written in the way it is and Knoll’s point in making this (instead) about the bright young women whose lives were snuffed out and the impact that had on their families, friends and those living in those times.
Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll was published in Australia by Pan Macmillan and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.