My relationship with crime fiction, at one time both congenial and seemingly long-lasting, has suffered. We used to be very close (to the unutterable dismay of my presiding bank account), but, more recently, I decided that the characters are frequently too predictable, the details of the plot all too easy to anticipate and rarely well depicted, and, finally, in more general terms, that crime fiction is a genre that yields too fully and too regularly to tedious habit, and, subsequently, that it is one that I wanted very little to do with.
In short: I was considering divorce.
Although Dear Amy falls firmly into this bracket, it sounded both intriguing and unusual, a more creative contribution to a genre occasionally guilty of stagnancy. Having read the synopsis, I decided that even if it did ultimately prove to suffer the aforementioned weaknesses, reading it would be, at worst, a brief return to a genre that is in possession of many glorious attributes, but that no longer meets my expectations. A throwback, if you will.
Drum roll please.
I genuinely enjoyed it. Helen Callaghan’s Dear Amy is well written, nicely structured, and cleverly paced, and could quite justifiably be provided with an admirable position on even the most highly regarded (and likely heaped) bookshelf. A startlingly compulsive read, it is assured and mature, neither circumventing in-depth explorations of the emotionally fraught scenes that feature in the narrative, nor avoiding delving into the painful and often far-reaching ramifications of the multitude of base cruelties that give rise to them. A suspenseful, gripping story, it is delivered with both delicacy and sensitivity.
(To paraphrase: I liked the thing.)
Dear Amy’s protagonist is Margot Lewis, a teacher and newspaper agony aunt. Her life is more or less predictable, aside from the unpleasantness of an impending separation from her husband, until she receives a strange letter addressed to ‘Amy,’ claiming to have been written by a victim of a kidnapping that took place many years ago. Margot initially assumes it to be a hoax made in spectacularly bad taste, but as more letters arrive, each more intense and desperate than the last, she is unable to dismiss them as meaningless. The possibility of a connection between the letters and a more recent disappearance is too important to disregard.
The answers that Margot finds, however, take a form she never expected, and the consequences for her own life are unutterably and decidedly severe. A vast, jagged hole is torn in her small, more or less predictable world, and emerging unscathed and unchanged from the ordeal proves to be impossible. With time running short and lives at stake, Margot struggles not to lose all sense of herself as everything she values and understands is thrown into painful confusion, and the actions she is obliged to take waver helplessly into dubious moral ground. Dear Amy‘s narrative is rife with deep, dark secrets and the darker predilections that give rise to them, and Margot cannot remain detached.
However, while the characters are realistic, often admitting to uncertainty and never devoid of weaknesses, Dear Amy is, unfortunately, comprised of rather too many gratuitous crime fiction stereotypes, to which the aforementioned moral uncertainty is an obvious example. Margot is easily identifiable as the tortured hero, replete with a tragic past and an absent family. These are familiar details, and lack originality.
Further, the novel begins with the conclusion of Margot’s marriage and ends with a burgeoning romance, a subplot that arguably offers little that is particularly original to the plot. It felt unnecessary and a little bit ridiculous, for the plot would have worked equally well in its absence, and while its inclusion was perhaps indicative of Margot’s eventual success and renewed certainty, I felt it detracted from the evocative imagery of Margot’s solitary struggle. Thematically, Dear Amy focuses on Margot’s journey, and the hard, uphill climb to the hidden truth. With the inclusion of the male romantic lead, her arc loses strength, for it is no longer herself that she depends on. This is again a familiar aspect of crime fiction, in which the protagonist is often paired off.
Fortunately, Callaghan’s prose offers no small remedy. Descriptive and intense, Dear Amy is vivid and immersive, and stacked high with explosive imagery and intense language. Some crime fiction novels suffer from a sparse style and a bland setting, given only some measure of life by the details of the plot and the driving force of the protagonist’s often-abrasive personality. Dear Amy is the opposite, powerfully written and expertly structured, with every aspect encouraging engagement and exciting suspense. The characters are realistic and varied, and her plot unusually structured.
I enjoyed the language, the imagery, and the broad strokes of the plot. I thought the concept was original and nicely crafted, and that it was suspenseful without being crass. However, I found some aspects of the plot to be too predictable, the romantic subplot uncomfortable at best, and the constant adherence to crime fiction stereotypes neither laudable nor unique. Finally, while Margot was an interesting and undeniably sympathetic character, she was too isolated, and very difficult to relate to.
(Maybe it’s a character flaw. Maybe it’s – never mind.)
Helen Callaghan is a brand new voice in the crime fiction world with an impressive turn of phrase and a brilliantly creative outlook on a genre that often suffers from descriptive brevity. Unfortunately, Dear Amy suffers from a number of predominant weaknesses alongside its many strengths, and as such, despite finding the plot genuinely riveting, I could only give it 3 out of 5 stars.