I picked this up from my library on a whim because it was on a display and I liked the description of the premise. I know nothing about Pretty Little Liars or Sara Shepard. The Amateurs has a great premise! Unfortunately, the writing, characterization, and even the plot fail to live up to the expectations I had.
Seneca Frazier has spent most of her first year of college on a message board called Case Not Closed. She and fellow amateurs ruminate upon and theorize about cold cases, of which her mother’s murder is one. Seneca takes a train to Dexby, Connecticut for spring break, where she meets IRL with another member of the board, Madison (Maddox) Wright, and together they plan to tackle the cold case of Helena Kelly. They are joined by Aerin, Helena’s younger sister; Maddy’s stepsister, Madison (it’s contrived); and a fellow Case Not Closed member, Brett. So we have a little Scooby gang of amateurs, I guess. And weird stuff keeps happening to try to discourage them from pursuing the case, but of course they have the pluck and determination to see it through.
Almost from the very beginning, the way that Shepard’s characters interact chafed. Seneca’s disappointment when she discovers Maddox isn’t what she was expecting is understandable, but Shepard seems determined to create misunderstanding after misunderstanding between them, all for the purpose of driving them closer for the inevitable romance. (Insert eye-rolling here.) Same with the way the whole gang kind of disintegrates around Seneca when she throws a little fit just before the climax. These interactions don’t flow that naturally from the characters’ personalities (because we never really dig that deep into them). Rather, they exist on the page because Shepard wants them there. This is particularly evident in some of the secondary interactions, such as Maddox and his coach/love interest Catherine: suddenly, for no reason other than the plot, Madison warns Maddox she is “psycho” and then Catherine is psycho, and that’s her defining trait for the rest of the book.
The mystery portion is so-so at best. Honestly, I kind of liked the twist at the end, but I wish it weren’t at the end—I wish it were a core plot point at the climax, and that Shepard wrapped up the entire storyline in this one book. (Maybe that’s just selfish of me, because I’m not going to read the sequel.) Everything I’ve read in this book suggests to me that Shepard is very skilled at creating these elaborate and twisted scenarios, but her writing leaves much to be desired, from my point of view.
For example—and this is a large part of why the mystery-solving fell flat for me—the way Shepard writes technology does not work for me at all. We’ll give the whole “message board” thing a pass in 2016; they aren’t as popular these days but even I still use a few. But it’s like every time Shepard mentions some element of technology, it’s a little … off. “Gchat”? Oddly specific. The way she describes someone taking out an iPhone and “tapping at the screen”, such a specific, physical description of an interaction that is extremely normal and well-known these days … it’s as if Shepard is writing for someone who has never used a touchscreen phone before. Similarly, the whole idea that the police wouldn’t have turned on Helena’s phone while investigating her disappearance, leaving 5 whole years to pass before these amateurs turn it on and receive a crucial, long-delayed voice mail? Ugh. I know the police aren’t always competent, but Helena was 17. She had a cell phone. That’s going to be the first thing they look for, and if they don’t find the actual device, they’re going to contact the carrier and look at their records. Honestly.
This book just falls flat for me in pretty much every way. It’s not that it’s all that bad or objectionable. It’s just flat, boring, dull, etc. You might love it, of course, and that’s on you—er, I mean, totally your valid opinion. But The Amateurs reads about as amateurish as its characters, which surprises me considering this author’s claims to fame … but oh well. There are many more mysteries out there to read.