Do you ever find yourself feeling you want to shout STOP at a character in a novel? I do occasionally when I notice the character about to make a decision or take an action that I know will lead to danger, heartbreak or tragedy.
I reached that point 16 pages into The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd. This is the moment in the narrative when an English schoolteacher’s fascination with a man on Death Row in America, crashes through the borderline with obsession.
Sam has been following his case for months, eagerly participating in online message boards and forums arguing Dennis Danson is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. She scrutinises every piece of evidence described in Framing The Truth, a TV documentary about the case. Then she writes directly to Dennis and is quickly won over by the charm and kindness of his reply.
Suddenly she’s declaring her love for him and hopping on a plane to visit him. Why? Essentially because she has little else going on in her life. She’s 31 years old, adrift in her job and recently broke up with her boyfriend. “It’s time,” says decides. ” for me to stop wasting my whole life wishing for things and actually do them.”
I know people do write to prison inmates even though they are complete strangers. There are even organisations like WriteAPrisoner to support this kind of penpal arrangement. But I’ve never heard of people flying thousands of miles to meet their partner prisoner in person.
Sam wilfully ignored my instruction to STOP. The stupid woman carried on disregarding the warning signs and said yes when this guy she barely knows pops the question. So there she is, wife of a guy in jail for the murder of one young girl and suspected of killing several others. Hardly the start of a wonderful marriage is it?
But Sam’s so naive that when Dennis does get released, she’s all a flutter, imagining this idyllic life together. Except you and I know it’s going to be anything like idyllic. He’s a non-smoking, health freak, superfit, meticulously tidy and jaw-droppingly handsome. She’s overweight, smokes, loves fast food and leaves a trail of discarded clothes and magazines in her hotel room.
They have little in common. She imagines the bliss of being wrapped in his arms. He doesn’t even want to share the same bed. Of course this is all heading for a disaster. We all know the signs and even Sam begins to get suspicious and afraid for her own suspicions. But Amy Lloyd cleverly keeps us in suspense about whether those suspicions are well founded and it’s not until the final 10 pages or so that we discover the truth.
Sam is a character for whom I had no empathy whatsoever yet I had to keep reading the book to find out whether my prognosis of disaster was misjudged or Amy Lloyd had been pulling the wool over my eyes all along. And that’s really the mark of a good thriller isn’t it? We keep reading even when the scenario is highly improbable and the characters disagreeable.
The novel does get rather draggy at times. I got tired of Sam’s expressions of physical desire for this guy and her frustration when he turns his back on her. I also got tired of the way she hangs about in hotel rooms doing nothing while he’s off to the gym, out running or hitting the keys on his laptop to write his memoirs.
There was an element of the story which didn’t ring true al all. We’re led to believe that Sam is being manipulated by Denis but there was little evidence of coercion. He snaps at her, is demanding about what they eat and where they go but generally shows little interest in her. It was hard to accept that she feels completely dependent on him and just goes along with whatever he wants.
But I did enjoy Amy Lloyd’s portrayal of the media and public frenzy that follows Dennis’ release. Money comes pouring in, as do freebie supplies of clothes and goodies from people who want ride the bandwagon. Media outlets hassle to be the first to get Dennis on their shows. Filming gets underway for a new documentary; there’s talk of a Hollywood premier. And then it all comes crashing down after one disastrous interview. That reversal of fortune felt such an accurate portrayal of the way heroes can so quickly become villains in today’s media and social media cycles.
Though I’m not a great fan of thrillers and I wouldn’t rate The Innocent Wife as one of the best, it did keep me entertained and distracted me from the crisis in which we find ourselves in the real world this year.
The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd: Endnotes
About The Book: The Innocent Wife was published by Arrow, an imprint of Penguin Books in 2018. It won the Daily Mail’s first novel contest
About the Author: Amy Lloyd is from Wales. She studied English and Creative Writing at Cardiff Metropolitan University. The Innocent Wife, her debut novel, became a Sunday Times top ten bestseller. Amy lives in Cardiff with her partner, who is also a published novelist. Her second novel One More Lie was published in 2019.