Pretty Dead Queens, the sophomore thriller from Alexa Donne, is a small town mystery full of intrigue with a disappointing ending.
Still emotionally devastated after her mother’s death, Cecilia has to move from sunny Southern California to a tiny seaside town in Northern California to live with her estranged grandmother. In her hometown, her grandmother is a famous author. Her first claim to fame was a murder mystery novel based on a true story: a homecoming queen who was murdered and drowned in the school pool.
Cecilia tries to adjust to her strange new life, but living in a town that’s famous for murder doesn’t make it easy. Her grandmother has bookstores, a dedicated tour, and even a fan convention. Still, she manages to make a small group of friends. As soon as she’s started to settle in, though, she finds another murdered girl on the night before homecoming. Another homecoming queen facedown in the high school swimming pool.
Immediately, she throws herself into the investigation. Despite the police and her grandmother trying to keep her away, she needs answers. She can’t stay away. She feels pursued by death: first her mother, then her old friend. She finds herself questioning everyone in her new town. Everyone here has secrets—she just needs to find out who may be deadly before it’s too late.
An unlikable heroine
While I enjoyed this novel, what held me back from loving it was unfortunately the main character. I did not connect with her at all. For the beginning, her judgemental attitude rubbed me the wrong way. She stereotypes everyone she meets, yet somehow effortlessly makes friends with the cool clique on Day 1. I also never felt like I connected with her on a deeper level. Even though she was struggling with her mother’s death, I felt nothing. I didn’t feel the connection between her and her mother or the greater grieving process.
Small town secrets done well… almost
On the positive side, the small town setting felt authentic. I’m a Northern California native, and I’ve been to towns exactly like this. It made a perfect spot for a murder mystery—families that know all of each others’ intimate business, paired with craggy cliffs that threaten to crumble beneath your feet at any moment. Donne fleshes out the minor members of the town in a way that makes them all interesting—and all suspects. So many different characters had compelling motives for murdering Natalie, which made each scene tingle with tension.
…which made the twist ending that much more disappointing. The killer turned out to be none of the suspects who we’d been building up for 300 pages, but somebody else altogether. While there might be something to say for the shock value, I still thought that it fell flat.
If you devour murder mysteries, you will love this book. Fans of Donne’s last thriller, The Ivies, may be disappointed, but it still may be worth the read.