The Church of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns

After finishing Stephen Dobyns’ The Church of Dead Girls my head feels very full. To me, mysteries and thrillers are like a game. Can I figure out who the killer is before he/she is revealed? Am I smarter than the narrator? Can I win?

The Church of Dead Girls is the first book we’ve read this semester that does not give the killer away until the end. In Psycho we basically knew it was Norman and in American Psycho Patrick Bateman was obnoxiously proud of the murders he committed–like he thought of them as works of art.

But Donald Malloy was a very different type of killer–a different type of psychopath. The most interesting thing in this novel for me was the juxtaposition between Donald and the narrator (who remained nameless throughout the story–which I hated! The fact that he remained nameless, not the story).

Donald was the stereotypical psychopath: irrational, skewed sense of justice, kills without a thought. Plus, he acted on his pedophilic urges and impulses and then blocked them out, blaming them on the victims instead. Though, to take a piece from Chihani’s book–perhaps Donald was just as much a victim as the girls in the end, but in different ways. Plus, being a victim doesn’t constitute NOT being a criminal. Often they’re two sides of the same coin.

Donald was imprisoned by his own mind, much like the narrator seemed to be toward the end. Yet, the narrator had coping mechanisms he used. He loved others and accepted himself and, because of that, he was saved. Being able to accept who he was saved him from turning into a victim and criminal like Donald. Perhaps this is also the first book we’ve read this semester where we see a man with the potential for psychopathy take control of himself. In a way, Dobyns answers the question: Can a psychopath still choose, or is he/she doomed to a horrible fate just because of brain chemistry? In some ways, yes, psychopaths have choices. Even people with certain tendencies can have knowledge of what is socially right and wrong and adhere to the societal standards if not for anything more than it’s what people generally seem to do.

Going on to the actual mechanics of the novel, it wasn’t my favorite setup. I could never tell if we were head-hopping, or if the narrator was constantly present throughout every scene. Maybe it was supposed to be a mystery, but it was a mystery I could have done without. I was kind of disappointed in the ending when there weren’t any startling revelations about the narrator. I was hoping for an M. Night Shyamalan twist ending where the narrator wasn’t real at all, or he actual had multiple personalities and had the personas of Franklin and Donald and Ryan. But, nope. Was the ending chilling? Of course, and it had one heck of a last line: “And the nails, how carefully they had been trimmed.” I hadn’t thought about that particular detail since it had been brought up the first time, so it was a good place to bring it back.

Another thing that fell flat for me was the suspense-factor. I hardly felt anything until Sadie got “kidnapped” and, to be honest, it was kind of a let-down when she was safe. Plus, there was such exposition overload for me. I mean, we didn’t even read about the first abduction until almost halfway through the novel, and it wasn’t even anyone that important. The only girl I remotely cared about was Meg because she was Sadie’s friend, but the other girls we really didn’t know, so their abductions didn’t hold as much meaning for me as Sadie’s would have. I just was waiting for some action the whole time, and I got it at the end, but I still wasn’t satisfied. I mean, I’m glad Liembach was innocent, otherwise it would have been way too obvious. But, Donald wasn’t exactly that much of a shocker either. I really wanted the murderer to come from left field–I theorized about Paula and Chihani and the narrator, but when it was Donald my first thought was, “that’s it? Really?”

So, overall, I enjoyed the book–well-written, creepy, and it had a complex plot that definitely makes me feel better about all the details I want to cram into my thesis novel. 🙂 It was like when the narrator talked about how we always hold two conversations: the one that’s actually being said and the one that can be heard in between the lines. The Church of Dead Girls was more of a “read in between the lines” kind of novel, when I was hoping for a novel that would shake me and leave me wanting to read in between the lines, not having to read in between the lines.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. kloft1993 says:

    Hi Katie,

    It’s interesting that you say this novel made you feel better about all the details you like to write with, because I feel like I have the opposite problem. This novel was one of those that made me feel like I should be using more exposition. And Dobyns writes so well, I could see myself studying some of his tactics to help with my thesis.

    With all the information we got on all the townspeople, I do wish we got more on the girls who were taken in order to get more of an emotional effect. However, I think that Dobyns avoided this along with naming the narrator and revealing the killer too soon because they weren’t the point he was trying to make. He wasn’t trying to write another mystery novel that could get lost among countless others, but instead made a statement on how detrimental pretending can be, especially in a small town. I think I enjoyed this novel more that most others, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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