At first blush, Type A sorority president Pamela Shumacher seems like a far cry from the great detectives of fiction. In place of a droll sense of humor or a swaggering attitude, the protagonist of Jessica Knoll’s new thriller, “Bright Young Women,” distinguishes herself by being relentlessly responsible; she’s an event planner with a knack for organization, who sticks with her “respectable” boyfriend for the sake of efficiency. And yet, she shares a special quality with the best of sleuths: Pamela refuses the easy answers.
Based on Ted Bundy’s real-life crime spree, “Bright Young Women” alternates between timelines and perspectives. Pamela’s story is set in Tallahassee in 1978. Up in the middle of the night, she inadvertently witnesses a stranger make his getaway from her sorority house. At first, she assumes he’s a robber, but she quickly learns that four of her sorority sisters have just been brutally attacked – two of them, including her best friend, Denise, murdered.
Things get murkier when investigators start to suspect Denise’s former boyfriend, Roger. Pamela knows that Roger is dishonest and aggressive; she also knows he isn’t the man she saw fleeing the house. This realization launches her on a private investigation to discover the killer’s true identity.
Alternating with Pamela’s story is that of Ruth Wachowsky, set four years earlier in Washington state. Ruth is divorced, has recently lost her beloved father and is living unhappily with her difficult mother. Things start to turn around for Ruth when she meets Tina Cannon in a grief support group. Beautiful Tina is a firebrand and a truth-teller. As a child from an impoverished background, she was essentially given away by her family to an elderly man in exchange for financial security. Now widowed and well-to-do, Tina is studying to be a therapist: She looks into people’s hearts, spotting their hidden motives. Ruth observes that “Tina had this way of staring at you while you spoke, like she wasn’t at all listening to what you were saying and instead was trying to figure out what you weren’t saying.”
With Tina’s support, Ruth comes into her own, gaining confidence and independence. But their budding friendship is set against an ominous backdrop: First one local girl goes missing, then another, and the Seattle police caution women not to go out after dark. These warnings foreshadow the dark turn that Ruth’s story will take.
Historically, thriller and true-crime writers are notorious for sensationalizing and eroticizing violence against women. “Bright Young Women” turns this misogynistic tradition on its head: Knoll’s depiction of violence is more personal than graphic, filtered through Pamela’s emotional reactions. Women are the warriors in this story. At first a reluctant detective, Pamela grows stronger through her investigation, discovering hidden inner resources – including new capacities for love and desire, and a growing resiliency.
After the sorority attack, Tina flies to Florida to meet with Pamela, suspecting that the man who killed Denise was also behind Ruth’s disappearance four years earlier. Along with Carl, a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat, Pamela and Tina join forces, crossing the country in search of the truth. As their story unfolds, Knoll scrupulously dismantles the mythmaking around the Bundy story. Pamela refers to him only as “the Defendant,” observing: “The man was no diabolical genius. He was your run-of-the-mill incel whom I caught picking his nose in the courtroom. More than once.”
With plenty of procedural details and satisfying plot twists, “Bright Young Women” ticks all the page-turner boxes. More important though, it alters the true-crime perspective – shifting the locus of power from the assailant to a determined young woman. In so doing, “Bright Young Women” delivers a spot-on feminist takedown of a kind of masculinity that is not only toxic but lethal.
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of “Birds of Paradise,” “Origin” and the culinary memoir “Life Without a Recipe.” Her most recent book is “Fencing With the King.”