The Church of Dead Girls

The Church of Dead Girls

Stephen Dobyns


What can I say about this book? I have read other reviews and they are either hot or cold. I am in the middle. While this story is not about a psycho nor is it about the dead girls the title alludes to, it is a wonderful examination of the behavior of a small town when a killer is one of their own.

I was disappointed of course since the opening chapter led me to believe it would be focused on the psycho and Dobyns’ strange choice to use first person made the reader question the narrator the entire time. The thing about the first-person choice was that it made the book seem so unreal. I mean I have never read a first person omnipotent (although maybe one could argue The Lovely Bones was written in that way) but that is how this book was presented. The narrator told us things that happened outside his presence, he told us how people felt and what they were thinking. He knew everyone’s secrets or at least it seemed that way.

Perhaps the book would have worked better if written in the style of a true crime or as a rough draft as a book written by Franklin complete with notes and journal entries which would give us more of an overview of people and would give us a more believable tale as well as an more enjoyable read. We are trained to show not tell. Its drilled into our beings, if by making us read this book we were supposed to see how terribly boring an entire book of telling is, then this was a success. There was no showing in this book because it is presented as a tale told in first person by a minor character of the story.

When telling occurs and the cast of characters grow immense as in this book, another obstacle the reader faces is finding empathy for any characters. You never really get to know anyone and so you don’t care about anyone. And when the characters are all so two dimensional, the reveal of the killer felt like a Deus ex Machina which is also frowned upon.

Let’s also talk about the reveal of the killer (I won’t say his name and ruin it for anyone in case you want to read this book for yourselves). His behavior at the end during his confession scene (can anyone say cliché to the max?) was so erratic that it was hard to believe he’d lived this way most of his life (that’s what he alluded to in his confession) and yet held it together enough to maintain his position in the town and his professional status. How had his family (who seemed close) not noticed or even considered him as a possible suspect? I don’t know. You can’t spend an entire book focusing on a few possible suspects and then make the killer be a character you only mentioned a couple times. I hate that.

Lastly, I was truly taken aback by the last chapter involving the narrator’s confession. The book seemed to have an underlying theme of the consequences of sex and homosexuality. Both of which were shown in a light which made them appear a bad thing or a dirty thing. At first, I thought “this theme is coming from the small town hive mind” and the author is weaving it through the story well, but then the end made me wonder if Mr. Dobsyn himself is saying something about homosexuality. Does he believe they are all perverted weirdos? I don’t know but I can tell you that there really was no need for that last chapter. It added nothing except a sense of unreliability to the entire story.

So what I am trying to say here is that the big picture—that of the paranoia and ugliness that flows through a small town when a crime occurs within its boundaries was presented well. If that was Mr. Dobsyns’ plan, then he succeeded. But the story, when broken down into its pieces was weak and cheaply made. Have you ever seen the movie The Money Pit? This book is like that house. On the whole, it was a great presentation but when you got inside and really looked, it all fell apart.



3 thoughts on “The Church of Dead Girls

  1. I spent the entire book thinking I was dealing with an unreliable narrator and was really disappointed when that didn’t happen. And I totally agree with you on the “psycho’s” reveal. It was so convenient as to almost seem like Dobsyn got to the end and said, “oh, shit, somebody has to be the killer!”


  2. Hi Joe-la,

    I actually didn’t think about it before, but you make a great point on how misleading the title and prologue to the novel was. I’m one of the few that actually enjoyed the read (maybe because I was accustomed to reading things like this in undergrad), but titles and starting points are crucial and should never be misleading, or at least not as misleading as The Church of Dead Girls. Perhaps there’s some metaphorical thing I’m missing.

    As for the narrator knowing things outside his presence, I took it as everyone knowing everything about everyone in a small town. Dobyns’s decision to make characters like Sadie and Barry close to the narrator made that even more believable, because it seemed as though he was getting some serious intel by acting as a supportive friend to them.


  3. I agree with your review of this book on so many levels! The narrator, the homophobia, the “guest” killer — because we barely met this guy! — all added up to that awkward, uncomfortable feeling you get when you sit in a puddle of *something* on the bus.


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