The Church of Dead Girls by Stephen Dobyns
Metropolitan Books 1997 388 pp. 23.00
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
The Church of Dead Girls is a portrait of a small town. What distinguishes this small town is that, one by one, three pubescent girls have been kidnapped and murdered. Their demented killer has removed their left hands with near-surgical precision. The narrator, a local biology teacher, tells the story of the mystery, and its solution. In so doing, he fleshes out a web of relationships that are labyrinthine in their complexity and contemporary in their tragedy.
Aurelius is a village in upstate New York, population seven thousand. Like many small towns, its numbers are dwindling, leaving the remaining residents with little to do other than attend their jobs and gossip about their neighbors. The narrator introduces us to the townspeople with a deliberativeness characteristic of someone accustomed to enduring long, frigid winters.
There’s a college in Aurelius, populated mainly by mediocre area students who failed to get accepted elsewhere. Into this sleepy environment drops fifty-five-year-old Algerian history professor, Houari Chihani. Chihani, whose ethnicity, crippled leg, and red Citroën make him stand out like a stain in the colorless community, is also a committed Marxist. As the narrator notes, "flesh-and-blood reality didn’t mean much to Chihani. His brain was too full of conversations with the dead, intellectual arguments, and philosophical ruminations."
Chihani soon forms a reading group at the college, Inquiries into the Right (IIR), which focuses on updating Marxist thought and applying it to the students’ lives. Gathering about him a motley group of the gifted and the disaffected, Chihani immediately arouses the suspicions of the townsfolk.
Then a young teenage girl disappears.
When reporter Franklin Moore interviews Chihani on the possibility that the girl had been raped, Chihani wins no friends among the readership by arguing that the rapist is as much a victim of capitalist society as the girl. Thus begins the creeping suspicion that Chihani and his student leftists are somehow involved in the crime.
People will talk. The fact that gossip is the lifeblood of entire television networks these days merely indicates its importance in people’s lives. The most convoluted and wounding gossip outside of innuendoes about television sportscasters’ private lives can be found in small towns, and Dobyns understands this.
As Moore says, "This is a small town. … People get excited." Suspicions increase, as more young girls disappear, and we witness the town tear itself apart from within. Everyone’s small secrets—adultery, homosexuality, military desertion—are revealed one by one to the unhealthy delight of all involved. "In a town like Aurelius—where there are few entertainments other than TV—romance and melodrama become exaggerated."
Citizen watch patrols are formed, and the overexcited participants become vigilantes, attacking their neighbors with an energetic vengeance and a complete absence of evidence. The narrator sees himself as "only a pair of eyes. Even a window—yes, I was the window through which my story passed." Yet, as the ugly focus of everyone’s suspicion inevitably falls on him, his own secrets are revealed.
"I blamed the whole thing on Suspicion with a capital S," he says. "It was like a revolving searchlight. Sometimes it illuminated one person, sometimes another."
At the end, this is what they found: "three dead girls propped up in three straight chairs." Dobyns, a gifted poet and author of the "Saratoga" mystery series, has produced an intricate novel that rewards the reader with much more than the pleasures of a mystery well told. As his narrator notes, "…it’s a reminder of what is always there, of the longings that lie within people, the longings we hide within ourselves," and a reminder of what can happen when those longings are unwittingly revealed to those close to us.