Mystery, murder, and mayhem are all in Chapter One of The Dead Girl Under the Bleachers by Donna M. Zadunajsky. Told through the voices of three adolescent girls, the plot of this intriguing, fast-paced fiction will keep the reader up at night. Who was being chased and beaten to death the night of the high school homecoming dance? Why?
The author delves deep into the complex personalities of her three main characters. The girls are entering their senior year of high school in a small semi-urban town that could be most any contemporary town. Scarlet, a self-proclaimed high school “queen bee,” is the malicious mastermind of plots to get revenge on anyone who crosses her path. Laura, a wallflower from a single-parent home, is one of the victims of Scarlet’s wrath. Then there is Rachel, the “monkey in the middle,” a not so innocent mediator who tries to maintain her best friend relationship with Scarlet. At the same time, her conscience wants to protect Laura. It’s a tragic story of romantic rivalries turning violent. Zadunajsky speaks of the difficult dilemma many teenagers face of dealing with who’s in, who’s out, and trying to be with the right clique to fit into a school’s social scene. The Dead Girl Under the Bleachers articulates how some girls get elevated to being the dark-hearted queen bee while others are just part of her court or worse totally shunned.
As unfathomable as the events in the story first appear, they tragically follow similar real cases of murder over petty high school grievances. In 2014, Krista Pike ordered Dustin Gran to murder her former boyfriend’s girlfriend Brittany Navarra, and in 2009, Rachel Wade stabbed Sarah Ludemann to death over romantic rivalries. Unfortunately, there are many of these unbelievable real-life tragedies.
Zadunajsky novel is filled with teenage angst and tackles a timely topic of sexting, exchanging of sexually explicit pictures and the conundrum posed by instant access to communication in today’s world, including the virality of inappropriate messages. Zadunajsky’s characters are relatable and realistic, as is their impulsive behavior.
The plot is told in alternate, first-person voices of the three characters. Scarlet cons Rachel and her boyfriend to humiliate and embarrass Laura for her past indiscretions. She sees her vicious pranks as games. Subterfuge gives her the upper hand. The themes of bullying and suicide are interwoven as the girls’ personal secrets are revealed. The complexity of coming-of-age teenaged girls includes behind the scenes of teen intrigue, charades, and episodes of sex, alcohol, and drugs, and murders. Zadunajsky’s vernacular for her characters is spot-on.
The plot is fast-forwarded through the inclusion of teen-speak conversations, text messaging, and transcripts of cell phone calls. Contemporary language is used appropriately to make the scenes realistic and help convey the personalities of the characters.
Suspense is heightened with the discovery of dead bodies leaving the town and the high school in a turmoil. Although the plot includes a rape scene and heavy partying, the novel would be appropriate for mature young adult readers. The meaning of friendship and being true to one’s self are positive take-a-ways from the story. This gripping novel is the author’s first in her Craven Falls Mystery series. I think readers will be anxiously waiting for Zadunajsky’s next installment.