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Stephen Dobyns is an American author and poet who was born in 1941. He has written a series of novels featuring a private eye named Charlie Bradshaw all of which have the word "Saratoga" in the title. As well as this series of novels he has written a number of standalone novels of which The Church Of Dead Girls is the ninth.
Nothing much of note ever happened in Aurelius, a small sleepy town with a population of around 7000 people. So when local divorcee Janice McNeal gets murdered it's big news. Nobody is ever charged with her murder and nobody can explain why her left hand was cut off. It doesn't help that she was rather free with her 'favours' and that she slept with a huge number of men in the town, both married and single.
Enter Houari Chihani, a Marxist professor recently employed by the Albert Knox Consolidated School. He thinks that the whole town of Aurelius is asleep and his outspoken views annoy many of the long time residents. He starts a left wing reading group which attracts a number of lonely, disaffected students, eager to belong to something.
Then, the first girl disappears whilst cycling. It must be an outsider the people tell themselves. It couldn't possibly be anyone in Aurelius. But, as events unfold it becomes clear that the culprit must be someone in the town. Suspicions falls, naturally enough, on the outsiders, the people in Chihani's reading group.
As tensions escalate and a further two girls go missing the whole town is consumed by fear and paranoia. Nobody is safe from suspicion, or the violence that sometimes accompanies it.....
The book is narrated by the biology teacher at the local school and is written in the first person. In his position as a teacher he has, obviously, taught many of the children who live in the town and has met their parents and relatives at parents evenings and other school events. In this sense he's a good choice of narrator as he's able to fill in some information for the reader about how the girls have performed at school, who their friends were and what their family situation is. The fact that he's also someone who was born and grew up in Aurelius also means he's able to provide a fair amount of information about the personal histories of various characters and their families.
His cousin, Chuck, works for the local police and his neighbour, Franklin, is editor of the town's newspaper so there's a fair amount of information that seems to have come from these two people both about the disappearances of the girls and various other events in the town that might be connected. Even so, there are occasions in the book when he appears to have almost too much information and you're left wondering whether he's involved in the disappearances of the girls or whether he's connected to them in some small way.
The book itself has dozens of characters ranging from those who get the barest mention and appear as little more than names on a page to those who are given potted histories, jobs and families etc.
But, if you're looking for a character driven book then this isn't it.
The opening of the prologue pulls you in straight away:-
"This is how they looked: three dead girls propped up in three straight chairs. The fourteen-year old sat in the middle. She was taller than the others by half a head. The two thirteen-years-olds sat on either side of her. Across the chest of each girl was an X of rope leading over her shoulders, down around her waist, and fastened in the back".......
Of course, you want to know who the dead girls and who killed them. From the outset there's no question of a happy ending, a rescue for the girls concerned. We know that when this disappear in the course of the story there's no coming back for them.
So, let's start with the positives.
The main thrust of the book is all about the reactions of the people in the town after each of the three girls disappear. We see, through the eyes of the narrator, how, after the first disappearance, there's a belief that the girl has been abducted by someone out of town. This, of course, seems perfectly natural as the townspeople themselves are somewhat parochial, insular and not that fond of strangers. You wouldn't think that your friends and neighbours, the people you work with, the people you see on the street, at the store etc could be capable of abducting a child. It's much simpler and much easier to accept that it's some nameless, faceless person that you don't know.
It soon becomes apparent that this belief in the "out of town stranger" theory is misguided and that someone in the community is responsible for the disappearance of the first girl. Concerned adults form a "friends group" to patrol the streets and "help" the police and events start to spiral out of control. Initially, of course, suspicion focuses on the "other", the misfits, the social outcasts, the loners, in short Chihani's group. Some of this, of course, is rooted in the fact that Chihani and his group are "different", whilst some is rooted in prior events that have occurred between Chihani's the members in his reading group and other people in the town. They, like others at later points in the book, make convenient scapegoats.
The narrator also puts himself in the firing line by drawing attention to himself in a number of ways. Firstly he's a single man, living alone. Secondly he doesn't join the "friends group" which might, for a time, afford him some sort of protection and lastly he's friendly with Franklin's teenage daughter, Sadie. All of these are causes for concern particularly now that the words and actions of everyone are subjected to much more scrutiny and discussion than they would have been in the past.
As tensions in the town grow in the "friends group" the more hot headed and impulsive members break all sorts of laws. They contaminate a crime scene, break into private property and, ultimately, kill.
Dobyns makes these events seem all too real and the way in which the tension in the town increases which each new event or each new suspicion and you, as a reader feel completely unsure about what will happen to the main characters in the book. Will they be accused of involvement in the disappearance of the girls? Will they be questioned by the police or the friends group or, even worse, subjected to violence? It does, I suppose, play upto stereotypes about small town. Generally speaking people who in large cities view smaller towns as being more conservative, where people are less open minded and where people gossip a lot more about their neighbours than they do in the cities. As events start to spiral out of control you get the feeling that nobody is safe and that events can suddenly "flip", placing anyone in danger without any sort of warning. For example, a few ill chosen words by a psychic or a verablised opinion of suspicion by someone in the "friends group" could soon have a bunch of townsfolk on your doorstep demanding answers and baying for blood. Things really do get that bad. Logic and respect for the law flies out of the window as fear and the instinct to fight takes over.
On the downside, I never really felt as if I got to know the narrator. I knew about his family, his history, his work as a biology teacher at the school and his friendships with other people in the town such as Franklin and Sadie. What I didn't really get any sense of is what he's really like as a person. This may be down to the fact that he's more of an observer rather than someone that interacts with the rest of the characters in the book in any meaningful way. He seems to record events rather than offering his own opinions on them and the people they're happening to.
The "distance" between the narrator and the rest of the residents of Aurelius coupled with the fact that his narration is somewhat dispassionate means that it's very hard for the reader to actually care about any of the other characters in the book. Dobyns never really develops any of the people in the book into fully rounded characters to the extent that you really feel strongly about them and care what happens to them, but then, given the sheer number of characters in the book and the amount of events that are covered this probably wasn't possible without increasing the length of the novel. It does, however, mean that even when each of the three girls disappear it's hard to care about them to any great extent because you haven't got to know them and develop a bond with them.
The other main problem I had with the book was that the ending seemed to loom up from out of nowhere and just suddenly happen. The explanation of why the girls had been abducted made some sort of sense in terms of some of the other events in the book, although I found the attempt at portraying the abductor's mental state to be somewhat hit and miss with some lines of dialogue being more funny, in a black comedy sort of way, than perhaps the author intended.
In conclusion I'd say that Aurelius is well described and that, in general, Dobyns gives enough information about the various characters in the book to enable the reader to distinguish between them. If you're looking for a book that puts forward a plausible portrayal of how a bunch of people are turned from concerned parents and friends into a bunch of unruly, law breaking splinter groups verging on vigilantism then look no further than this. The pace is somewhat slow but this allows Dobyns to build the tension and atmosphere until you're not sure what's going to happen to anyone in the book.
If however, you're expecting enough clues to play "whodunnit" or you're looking for a book with well drawn characters that you can experience some degree of empathy then this isn't it.
On balance, I'd recommend this book purely because it is so different to many other books out there. It's probably one you'll need to persevere with a bit as it's rather slow to start but, if you're in any way interested in how people react under pressure then there's more than enough material in the book to hold and engage your interest.
The book appears to be out of print now but second hand copies can still be purchased through wesbites such as Amazon.
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New edition edition (29 Oct 1998)