In her widely-read 2014 article “Toward a Theory of a Dead Girl Show”, Alice Bolin discusses how television mystery shows often rely on the suffering and silence of beautiful, infinitely inscrutable “Dead Girls”. Dispatched before the series commences, these young women are a ubiquitous yet ethereal presence. Their lives and deaths are mysteries to be solved, but the girls themselves never become characters in their own right: they are memories, riddles, conduits for someone else’s epiphanies.
Bolin focuses her discussion primarily on how shows like Twin Peaks (1990-91) and True Detective (2014-present) frame their dead girls as beautiful ciphers. A dead girl is never a person with her own voice or desires. Rather, she is a victim whose exquisite corpse becomes “A neutral arena on which to work out male problems”. As such, the “Dead Girl Show” always centers on the (typically) male detective attempting to unravel the puzzle of the Dead Girl’s tragic, invariably brutal demise. She is a clue, a puzzle, an enigma. Crucially, however, she is rarely a fully-developed character. As Bolin argues, the “Dead girl is not a character in the show, but rather, the memory of her is”. It is her premature death that impels the detective to investigate her demise towards some greater realization about himself or his world.
Bolin’s theorization of the Dead Girl Show is, to my mind, sweeping and excessively harsh. After all, Twin Peaks was intentionally playing with a formula derived from classic film noir like Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), and the series was later followed up by a prequel, Fire Walk With Me (1992), entirely devoted to exploring the trauma of iconic dead girl Laura Palmer. Nevertheless, Bolin’s essay provides a useful framework for exploring how murder mysteries often veer into implicit misogyny through their fetishization of violently-dispatched, eternally silent Dead Girls.
Sebastian Corbascio’s 2018 murder-mystery novel Sarah Luger could easily have slipped into Dead Girl territory. On a paratextual level, the book possesses a clear warning sign. The cover features the motionless visage of a beautiful young woman: her skin is milky white; her pink lips, though immobile, are almost smiling. Yet, despite this superficial evocation of beautiful Dead Girls such as Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer or John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia”, the eponymous Sarah Luger is no mere cadaver, a posthumous mystery to be solved. Instead, Sarah emerges as a fascinating character in her own right. The novel which bears her name may center on the attempts of male detectives to unravel Sarah’s murder, but as the story progresses, it is Sarah herself who most ardently commands our attention. No mere idealized, tragic beauty, Sarah Luger is revealed as a complex, multifaceted and often deeply unpleasant character. It is this nuance that elevates Corbascio’s novel above many standard modern mysteries. While the detectives who investigate Sarah’s shocking murder and the suspects they interrogate are all intriguing characters, it is Sarah herself who, through a series of flashbacks and recollections, comes to dominate the novel. Unlike Bolin’s typical Dead Girl, Sarah is not just a memory. She is a character who, despite her early death, grows and develops over the course of the novel. Moreover, Sarah is allowed to be an unlikeable character, possessing a level of moral ambiguity rarely afforded to women in fiction.
Sarah Luger is set in 1984, in the midst of Reagan-era conservatism, on the cusp of “Morning in America”, when the nation’s middle classes retreated into the placidity of suburbia and the comfort of consumerism. The novel opens with the death of the title character. Devoid of context, Sarah’s death is a disorientating sequence of bizarre and violent occurrences: a young woman runs down a dark suburban street; she is pursued by a blue Honda; she seeks momentary refuge from a neighbor; she dies slowly, laboriously, in the kitchen of her own suburban home. The chapters that follow seek to infuse this unsettling opening sequence with meaning, developing each occurrence as the natural conclusion of Sarah’s increasingly chaotic existence and the painful events that lead inexorably to her demise.
The story is told using third-person narration, allowing for the accumulation of diverse viewpoints on Sarah and her life. However, many of the novel’s key events are, at least initially, focalized through the perspectives of detectives Sariano and Harper. They’re both outsiders to the small California town of Fidelis. Harper is a former narcotics detective from Philadelphia, while Sariano earned his reputation by catching a Zodiac-like serial killer nicknamed Capricorn. It is through their experiences that we come to know Fidelis, an affluent community driven by social divisions. The mystery of Sarah’s death is intriguingly framed. Harper and Sariano need to unravel not only the identity of Sarah’s killer, but they also need to determine a motive for the murder of a popular fifteen-year-old volleyball star. Over the course of their investigation, the detectives piece together the final days of Sarah’s life through interviews and examinations.
In one particularly telling scene, Corbascio deftly unveils Sarah’s characterization through the items the two detectives discover in her bedroom. In addition to volleyball trophies, records, make-up and the diverse paraphernalia of adolescence, the pair also finds a bookshelf filled with children’s stories, including The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Through the objects in her room, Corbascio subtly position’s Sarah in the transitional period of adolescence, caught between childhood and adulthood.
As the plot unfurls, Sarah moves from a peripheral figure, a young girl stabbed on her front porch whose death ignites anxiety in her wealthy community, to the central figure in her own story. We discover that despite her all-American appearance and youthful innocence, Sarah was frustrated, unhappy and often cruel. A member of a powerful high-school sorority known as the Legionnaires, Sarah was under immense pressure to excel socially and academically. Her mother, a former Legionnaire herself, pushes Sarah to study relentlessly in subjects for which she has no talent in order to ensure her daughter earns a place in an Ivy-League university. At the same time, Sarah exists at the top of a vicious and precarious social order. She bullies those who occupy the lower stratum on the social hierarchy and expresses vocal disdain for girls who do not meet the rigid standards of physical perfection that Sarah sets for herself. The Legionnaires are elitist bullies, their status guaranteed by affluence and inherited social influence.
They stage elaborate initiation rituals and sadistically haze new pledges. For a novel that owes more to James Ellroy or even Dashiell Hammett than to teen pop culture, it is strange to discover shades of Michael Lehmann’s 1989 black comedy Heathers nestled amidst the hardboiled dialogue of middle-aged detectives. Yet, Sarah’s involvement with the Legionnaires and her enviable social status are key to the mystery surrounding her death.
Positioned at the apex of high-school society, the Legionnaires not only embody the Reagan-era preoccupation with wealth and social climbing, but they also epitomize how such affluence depends for its very existence on the exploitation of those who exist on lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. The Legionnaires, in order to ensure the continuation of their social and economic influence, copy papers and tests from other students, typically from less privileged students who function as homework mills for their wealthy peers. The Legionnaires, however, are simply a more organized, more institutionalized manifestation of the social divisions that define Fidelis. Beneath its idyllic façade, the town rife with racism and classicism. It is the weight of such prejudices and the rifts they engender that ultimately lead to the explosion of violence that will inevitably claim Sarah’s life.
Corbascio’s novel is brilliantly paced. Intercut by flashbacks that illuminate Sarah’s character and the personalities that surrounded her, Sarah Luger elegantly exploits its non-linear structure to first obscure and then reveal the truth of its heroine’s death. The dialogue is fast-paced and sharp. More impressive yet, when writing scenes that take place between adolescents, Corbascio doesn’t slip into simulated slang or patronizing renditions of youth. His young people are just as smart and complex as his adults. His prose is breathless and mesmerizing, dragging the reader along as the novel careens towards its inevitable, tragic denouement. Likewise, his descriptions of violence manage to be beautiful and hypnotic.
Choreographed almost like intense, frenzied dances, Corbascio’s more violent scenes have a kinetic fluidity to them that simultaneously intrigues and horrifies. Yet, for all of its engaging imagery and carefully-constructed mysteries, the part of Sarah Luger that most captivated me as a reader was Sarah herself. Neither a beautiful and fetishized corpse nor a puzzle whose unraveling serves only to illuminate male desires, Sarah is a complex and lively figure. She is at once an innocent girl caught in a social system over which she has no control and a tyrannical, sadistic bully. Sarah Luger is not a passive Dead Girl, but an engaging character whose life ends up being far more perplexing than the mystery surrounding her death.