[Tin House; 2023]

The Night Flowers is a debut thriller that examines the haunting reality of unidentified murder victims, breast cancer treatments, and ghosts who reveal their stories. Thirty years after the tragic discovery of a Jane Doe and two young girls stuffed in barrels within the mountains of New Mexico, librarian Laura MacDonald and Detective Sergeant Jean Martinez are on the case. The novel is told from four perspectives across three timelines. Laura MacDonald and Jean Martinez are in the present; the ghosts of the murderer’s victims speak from the afterlife; and Peggy (also known as Jane Doe) recounts her past, as well as her experiences in the afterlife. 

Illness, mortality, and identity are inescapable themes in this novel. They intertwine just as Laura, Jean, and Peggy do. The question of mortality plagues Laura while dealing with breast cancer’s effect on her identity. Peggy’s murder means that others must discover her identity. Jean’s long-time career in the police force has her wondering if she can compartmentalize herself to function in various aspects of her life properly.

It can be argued that both cancer survivors and murder victims are robbed of bodily autonomy. Laura MacDonald is a research librarian, a search angel, and a genealogist. She wakes up from breast cancer surgery and visits a crime site, reading about a Jane Doe and two young girls who were found. The case sparked curiosity and even kinship. She’s filled with shame that she believes Jane Doe would wholeheartedly understand. Ashamed that her body “failed her” due to cancer, she thinks the Doe could feel shame for not being able to protect herself or the girls. Laura’s feelings go deeper, “There was the other similarity. While time had erased Jane Doe’s body, cancer had erased Laura. In the Gila Wilderness, Jane Doe had no name, no date of birth. Here, in the hospital wilderness, Laura was only her name and date of birth. She had no voice.”  This kinship seems to be the motivating factor for Laura to give the victims a name and face. Her research begins with genealogy forums and various methods of at-home research. After recovering from sepsis, Laura books a flight to Albuquerque to devote a week to finding Jane Doe. The life-threatening event gave her new insight—she gets to be alive. She also has the opportunity to find out what happened to Jane Doe and the young girls after all these years. 

In addition to this cold case, Laura experiences a harrowing breast cancer journey. It’s disorienting to see Laura grapple with her mortality while uncovering Jane Doe’s fate. Her battle reads with almost an air of foreshadowing, as it seems uncertain whether she will survive or if she will become another of this novel’s victims. Her experience is incredibly insightful as it shows the mental, physical, and emotional toll this illness has on a person, and not just its end result. Cancer as a major theme in this novel shows that having cancer can feel like murder. Laura experiences side effects from chemotherapy and medicines. She has a plastic surgery consultation, her body goes into sepsis, and, overall, she realizes the possibility of dying. After surviving sepsis, she embraces the fact that she is still alive. The flip side of that is the realization that she will die. Having cancer creates fear in and of itself, and that fear amplifies when analyzing mortality, which begins to take further effect on one’s life. Cancer is not just a disease within the body in this novel; it affects perceived notions of what it means to live and die, and how one chooses to do so.

Detective Sergeant Jean Martinez has served almost twenty years on the police force. In that time, she has tried to compartmentalize who she is for the sake of her sanity, her victims, and her family. With this cold case nearing its thirty-year anniversary, she uses every possible strategy to get to the truth. She gathers old case files as a starting point, whether it calls for retracing her steps or coming up with a new tactic. Jean’s personal philosophy is that the victims all deserve their names, so she wants to identify Jane Doe as much as Laura does. Having a name means that you meant something to somebody and, at the very least, she wants them to know they matter to her. However, her personal life and work life come into conflict:

If she could divide herself into three people, maybe she could make her life work. Give one to her husband: a partner eager to retire and—well—she wouldn’t know what to do with that much free time, but they could think of something. Give one to her daughter: a caretaker for her granddaughter when Colleen had to go back to work full-time. The third she’d keep for herself.

When one sees her reasoning for wanting various versions of herself, one may think, why not quit? In a heart-to-heart with Laura, Jean says she still wants to contribute as a cop. She started off in “major crimes—child abuse cases—but those cases took a large toll on her. In Jean’s eyes, when it comes to cold cases, all that’s left to do is to look for the missing puzzle piece. Despite what the years on the force have taken from her, Jean is determined to solve the case. She strives to give the victims what they deserve: a name and justice.

Working on this nefarious case brings Jean and Laura together in odd ways. Jean enters her office one day and finds Laura waiting for her. Laura explains all of her findings but nothing comes of their interaction. Laura doubts herself momentarily but continues her own investigation. Jean catches her breaking and entering inside a church but forgives it as Laura presents further compelling findings about the case. Jean even goes so far as to deputize Laura, and they begin to work together and get to know each other on a more personal level. The detective and librarian ease into being vulnerable with each other. Their lighthearted moments provide a brief light in the darkness that is this case:

Jean saw Laura sitting at a far table in the restaurant. There were only a handful of people in the place, and the librarian stuck out with her pale skin and short hair. And a bright turquoise T-shirt with a picture of a sunset-flanked mesa. A waitress came to their table right away.

Jean couldn’t help herself. “New shirt?”

Laura pulled at the bottom edge, reviewing the upside-down picture. “There was an issue involving an errant stick of mascara I may or may not have dropped, and it turns out I did not have a change of clothes in my bag.”

Despite collaborating on a cold case with high stakes, they are able to lower their guard with each other.

Oftentimes, in murder cases, the victim’s story is reduced to a timeline someone else constructs. The Night Flowers stands out as Peggy gets to tell her story. In Peggy’s recollection, we see that Laura and Jean’s investigation had shown the events that transpired pretty accurately. She got pregnant after college and moved in with her estranged mother after her dad kicked her out. She and her dad attempt reconciliation, but it fails when her future murderer coerces her to lie to her family about where she, her daughter, Daisy, and he are going to live. Peggy and Daisy’s new lives become riddled with abuse, manipulation, and lies. When the murderer unexpectedly brings Jo into their life, Peggy sees a child she wants to protect. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case, as Peggy was murdered before she could protect Daisy and Jo. While there is some closure to understanding what happened, getting that information from the source makes it infinitely more chilling: “He went into Daisy’s room, then Jo’s. Erasing each one like he did me. I knew there wasn’t anything else I could do. I wrapped my invisible body around Daisy and Jo, whispering in their ears that I was here, it was going to be okay.” Peggy is more than just a compilation of crime scene photos or a series of theorized events leading up to her murder. She and the girls should have been more than victims found in barrels. 

The lives of those affected after a murder are frequently told, but almost never through the eyes of the ghost of the victim. Peggy’s ghost is a constant presence throughout the novel, relaying the new reality of her life while dealing with her past. She reflects that “someone new must be looking for us again. I know why people want to know. It’s not for me. Dead or alive, people make the story about themselves. Me and Daisy and Jo. I can’t forget to include them. It’s their story too.” Her story is riddled with violence and death, and she doesn’t want to be remembered that way. The ghost is content with Daisy and Jo in the little oasis they created for themselves in the afterlife. However, Peggy realizes that even in this afterlife, her murderer will come after them. So, she decides to prepare herself this time. Peggy begins to observe her murderer, calculating his next steps, all while dealing with what he has taken from her and learning he has taken the same things from others. She, along with one of his other murder victims, even goes so far as to protect the women who get too close to the truth and are about to get caught. Peggy and another of this murderer’s victims form a shield to protect the two women with a light so powerful that it momentarily blinds him, and the two women get away unscathed.

Nancy takes my hand. She seems sure of herself. We stand, one in front of the other, placing ourselves between Curtis and the women. With our bodies stacked, the sun catches, refracts. Light explodes. I feel heat radiating through my chest and limbs. Curtis raises an arm to cover his eyes. The women don’t move. Good.

From this ghostly protection, Laura and Jean safely escape. Seeing her transition from grieving what she couldn’t do to getting ready to fight is such a gripping development. Now, she can continue to move forward for the sake of herself and the girls.

This novel presents unique ways in which women bond with each other and confront their own vulnerabilities. Both those with illness and those who lie unidentified know what it’s like to have had their bodily autonomy compromised. Death forces a re-examination of one’s mortality and identity, and how those two will affect someone’s lifespan. These women show that female friendships can be formed not just by similar interests, but also by a shared experience. The Night Flowers is a beautiful and haunting thriller, showing women seeking to overcome life’s most formidable and life-altering events. It tells a story about how a Jane Doe is more than just a Jane Doe, how Laura is more than her breast cancer, and how Jean is more than a detective.

Melissa Gonzalez’s writing can also be found at Latinx in Publishing. One of her favorite pastimes is talking about the books that she loves (and hates). She loves boba, horror movies, and playing the drums. You can follow her bookstagram @floralchapters

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