(Side note: The following blog post contains spoilers regarding the ending for Sara Shepard’s new YA Mystery novel The Amateurs.)
Writing mysteries is difficult for authors because readers want concrete clues and characters who figure things out logically instead of making assumptions. Yet action, suspense, and danger are interesting. One of the biggest problems for mysteries is the concept of red herrings. Red herrings are tricky because they make a mystery have credibility and depth by allowing for more than one suspect. But they can also be tedious because nobody wants to read one false lead after another. However, Sara Shepard once again proves that she is a literary genius with her new Young Adult Mystery novel The Amateurs, which was published on November 1, 2016.
It’s no understatement to say that the ending brings the novel to another level. The book concludes with one of the friends (Brett) of the group of teens and college-aged students lying about who he is, in addition to being responsible for the murder of the cold case they were investigating. Brett is probably responsible for two other murders, too.
Sara Shepard pushes the novel even further. The epilogue confirms the cliffhanger of Seneca, Maddy, and Aerin becoming suspicious of Brett by including another scene from Brett’s point of view, which shows his unhinged psychopathic thoughts (the structure of the novel entails a chapter from each of the four points of view―Seneca, Maddy, Aerin, and Brett). Giving readers something tangible is important because there’s the tired idea that information needs to be kept secret as long as possible. Well, no offense, but that idea is outdated. Readers need more than a five second payoff. After all, showing the ramifications of a revelation is just as exciting as the revelation itself. So, I can only begin to wonder what will happen in book 2 and book 3 (The Amateurs is going to be a trilogy).
I haven’t gone back and looked at every single clue in the book. But I have looked back at the first clue. Shepard illustrates her cleverness in terms of crafting a good mystery. A clue exists in plain sight, yet I didn’t even realize it at the time. The clue is that Seneca notices a guy (Brett) checking her out/acting weird by staring when she takes the train to Connecticut to meet Maddy (a guy she met on a true crime website who is interested in the same cold case as her). The incident is then buried by seeming innocent and unimportant when Seneca, Brett, and Maddy meet. Planting a clue early on in the novel reinforces Brett’s sketchy character, adding another piece to the puzzle. I will admit that I had no idea that Brett would be the murderer. But I can appreciate the foundation for it as a result of the awkward staring moment.
Shepard also creates fleshed out characters even if they are amateurs and not real cops since they actually investigate incidents, rather than just letting them occur. Having Aerin (the sister of the deceased girl they investigate and who wants the truth―even more than Maddy, Brett, or Seneca), Brett, Seneca, and Maddy be active characters as opposed to passive characters is a necessary component in making the novel a more interesting read. Sure, people being passive isn’t unrealistic. However, passiveness doesn’t translate well in fiction, and it can easily become dull and mundane.
So, go ahead and give The Amateurs a chance.
While more eloquent writing certainly exists, there’s nothing wrong with reading an entertaining book. Unlike literary fiction, readers just have to look a little harder for the deeper meaning. And oh, this novel definitely has one. It doesn’t shy away from highlighting America’s obsession with sensational murders. Read The Amateurs if you want a chilling plot to blend in with our chilling reality.