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Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll
Crime fiction

Bright Young Women

by Jessica Knoll

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Quick take

In this piercing portrait of a bygone era, a vicious serial killer targeting young women strikes fear into a nation.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_MultipleNarrators

    Multiple viewpoints

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Feminist


  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NonLinear

    Nonlinear timeline

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Real-life-characters

    Real-life characters


January 1978. A serial killer has terrorized women across the Pacific Northwest, but his existence couldn’t be further from the minds of the vibrant young women at the top sorority on Florida State University’s campus in Tallahassee. Tonight is a night of promise, excitement, and desire, but Pamela Schumacher, president of the sorority, makes the unpopular decision to stay home—a decision that unwittingly saves her life. Startled awake at 3 a.m. by a strange sound, she makes the fateful decision to investigate. What she finds behind the door is a scene of implausible violence—two of her sisters dead; two others, maimed. Over the next few days, Pamela is thrust into a terrifying mystery inspired by the crime that’s captivated public interest for more than four decades.

On the other side of the country, Tina Cannon has found peace in Seattle after years of hardship. A chance encounter brings twenty-five-year-old Ruth Wachowsky into her life, a young woman with painful secrets of her own, and the two form an instant connection. When Ruth goes missing from Lake Sammamish State Park in broad daylight, surrounded by thousands of beachgoers on a beautiful summer day, Tina devotes herself to finding out what happened to her. When she hears about the tragedy in Tallahassee, she knows it’s the man the papers refer to as the All-American Sex Killer. Determined to make him answer for what he did to Ruth, she travels to Florida on a collision course with Pamela—and one last impending tragedy.

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Content warning

This book contains scenes that depict sexual assault.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of Bright Young Women.
Bright Young Women


Montclair, New Jersey

Day 15,825

You may not remember me, but I have never forgotten you, begins the letter written in the kind of cursive they don’t teach in schools anymore. I read the sentence twice in stinging astonishment. It’s been forty-three years since my brush with the man even the most reputable papers called the All-American Sex Killer, and my name has long since fallen to a footnote in the story.

I’d given the return address only a cursory glance before sliding a nail beneath the envelope’s gummed seam, but now I hold it at arm’s length and say the sender’s name out loud, emphatically, as though I’ve been asked to answer the same question twice by someone who definitely heard me the first time. The letter writer is wrong. I have never forgotten her either, though she is welded to a memory that I’ve often wished I could.

“You say something, hon?” My secretary has moonwalked her rolling chair away from her desk, and now she sits framed by my open office door with a solicitous tilt of her head. Janet calls me hon and sometimes kiddo, though she is only seven years older than I am. If anyone refers to her as my administrative assistant, she will press her lips together whitely. That’s the sort of current-climate pretension Janet doesn’t care for.

Janet watches me flip the navy-bordered note card, back to front, front to back, generating a slight wind that lifts my bangs from my forehead. I must look like I’m fanning myself, about to faint, because she hurries over and I feel her hand grazing my midback. She fumbles with her readers, which hang from her neck on a rhinestone-strung chain, then juts her sharp chin over my shoulder to read the outstanding summons.

“This is dated nearly three months ago,” I say with a ripple of rage. That the women who should be the first to know were always the last was the reason my doctor made me cut out salt for the better part of the eighties. “Why am I just seeing it now?” What if I’m too late?

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Why I love it

If you are a longtime Jessica Knoll fan like I am, you are in for an incredible treat with her latest novel—an unflinching and evocative story about tabloid fascination with evil and the remarkable women who dare to confront a misogynistic monster. With her characteristically fearless storytelling, Knoll weaves a potent tale of psychological suspense that takes on not only evil itself, but what it means to survive—and to get yourself to the other side.

What sets Bright Young Women apart is how Knoll flips the script on the crime genre. The first of two braided narratives begins in 1978 Florida with Pamela whose world is rocked one fateful night when a killer targets her sorority. On the other side of the country Tina Cannon has just resettled in Seattle and befriends a local named Ruth. Then one day at the beach Ruth goes missing with echoes of the Florida massacre, setting Tina and Pamela on a collision course. Instead of glorifying the criminal (or the harrowing nature of his crimes), Knoll shines a light on two women who face down the horrific damage he’s inflicted and find their way to justice. I loved these women and found myself rooting for them every step of their pulsating journeys.

This is crime fiction at its best, and my favorite Jessica Knoll novel yet. Don’t waste any time, add this gem to your box and kick your Fall reading off right.

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Member ratings (7,559)

  • Arifa Q.

    Baltimore, MD

    As someone who is very familiar with serial killer and rapist, Ted Bundy, this book was excellent! I enjoyed reading the various viewpoints and yes, let’s stop talking about Ted Bundy’s “good looks!”

  • Tracy V.

    New York , NY

    Knoll did an amazing job as per usual, but I’m left feeling angry, which I think was her intent. People need to stop glorifying T*d B*ndy. He was not smart or charismatic. Nor did he “lure”. Super sad

  • Emilia J.

    Shady Side, MD

    I don’t know if why but I didn’t realize that this was based on Ted Bundy until the end. Once I realized it, I immediately saw all the connections, but in the moment I didn’t. The book was very good.

  • Amelia P.

    Brighton , MA

    The plot here was a little choppy but I found some of Knoll’s observations so potent that I could ignore the parts of this book that didn’t work. Why do we glorify the actions of base men? Eye opening

  • Holly O.

    Chicago, IL

    I find a lot of “true crime” glorifies serial killers and the gore and trauma to be used as “entertainment.” This is a retelling that is done respectfully without glorifying the “defendant.”

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