The killer in "Bright Young Women" is not named, but anyone who's familiar with Ted Bundy will recognize it's a fictional version of him.
Jessica Knoll's novel is set at a Florida State University sorority house where, in the third chapter, a killer strikes. Sorority President Pamela Schumacher survives, even getting a glimpse of the culprit. She spends the rest of the book, which alternates between the present and the '70s time of the attack, working to bring the killer to justice — with the assistance of a reporter and mysterious Tina Cannon, whose late lover was killed by the same man more than four decades ago.
In the '70s, when serial killers were first named and seemed to be everywhere, the victims were usually young women. The thesis of Knoll's novel is that it was easier to get away with killing them because there was no one to stand up for them. In the early years of feminism, police officers and reporters could discount their stories, call them "hysterical" and leave it to some future cop to solve, as eventually happened with Bundy's dozens of murders.
It's a compelling argument and Knoll has a sharp ear for the myriad ways women, especially young women recovering from tragedy, can be discounted. Because Pamela is powerless when she becomes an unwilling participant in the justice system, she leans on those who seem helpful — only realizing too late that they're not helping her at all. It's a relief when she meets Cannon, who cares about finding justice as much as her, but is Cannon really who she says she is?
"Bright Young Women" is a smart, absorbing book, but it's in the Cannon story that it loses its grip. Knoll's structure is way too elaborate, whipping back and forth between not just Pamela's past and present but also '70s scenes that focus on another character. The voices of the "bright young women" are so similar that it's often tough to keep track of the narrative.
In the end, what works best is Knoll's reminder that, although it's the killer's name we know, it is the titular characters who belong at the center of the story.
Bright Young Women
By: Jessica Knoll.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 374 pages, $27.99.