Review: The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd

The winner of the Daily Mail First Novel Competition, Amy Lloyd’s The Innocent Wife is gripping psychological suspense from a brilliant new voice in crime fiction (available March 6, 2018).

Why do women fall in love with men behind bars—especially lifers and convicted serial killers? News reports after the death of Charles Manson reminded us how many women were involved with him during his incarceration. Same with Ted Bundy. Did these women suffer from hybristophilia, which Forensic Psychologist Katherine Ramsland defines as “a sexual disorder in which arousal is contingent on being with a partner who has committed an outrage, such as rape, torture or murder?” In a HuffPost interview, Ramsland also added that “some women also seek fame by proxy, or believe they can tame the ‘wild beast’ in a violent man”—a more garden-variety obsession. Of course, there are false imprisonments, and interested citizens can devote years to seeking the release of a prisoner they perceive as innocent. Think of Bob Dylan’s song “Hurricane,” written to protest the imprisonment of middle-weight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. It took almost 20 years, but Carter was eventually released, free at last.

Amy Lloyd’s man-behind-bars, Floridian Dennis Danson, is a complicated character. See how many boxes she ticks in her portrayal of a possibly innocent prisoner.

Twenty years ago, Dennis Danson was arrested and imprisoned for the brutal murder of a young girl in Florida's Red River County. Now he's the subject of a true-crime documentary that's whipping up a frenzy online to uncover the truth and free a man who has been wrongly convicted.

The brutal murder of a young girl. Check. True-crime documentary. Check. Online frenzy. Check again. And, most importantly, the possibility that he’s been “wrongly convicted.” Check and mate.

Englishwoman Samantha—Sam—becomes engrossed in the case of Dennis Danson, “eighteen years after the first documentary.” Her boyfriend Mark turns her onto to the story. She binges on every detail she can find. Tellingly, Sam shifts from passively absorbing information to actively working for Danson’s release. Mark becomes her former boyfriend, unhinged by her absorption in Danson’s plight. She signs petitions and joins message boards; she’s on a crusade to free Dennis Danson. Even behind bars, Dennis is a compelling figure.  

The fans connected with Dennis on a deep level. In part because, after his arrest, over the years they watched him change from a troubled eighteen-year-old boy to the man he became in prison. There was something almost holy about him, the way he looked in bright white overalls. Serene like a monk, his hands and feet bound together with I-shaped chains as if in some kind of penance.

Never underestimate the allure of a blank slate, a man who exudes a calm, Zen-like acceptance of his circumstances. Fans share stories of their interactions, which leads Sam to write to Dennis; she pours out her soul to him in a girlish, hopeful tone—and expresses the hope she’ll hear back. She does.

Dear Samantha,

Sorry for the delay in writing you. You’re right, I get a lot of letters and it takes me some time to read through what is sent to me. But even though I have a lot of time I do not reply to them all. Something about your letter stood out to me. I’m sorry to hear you are lonely. I’m lonely too.

Fast forward. Dennis and Sam become much more than pen pals—he asks her to come to America; he wants to meet her. The gritty reality of her first jail visit is difficult for Sam, but they have a palpable connection. An irritant, however, is Sam’s possessiveness; she wants to be everything to Dennis. She spends her time away from him methodically tracking down every place and person of significance to him. When she discovers that Lindsay, a childhood friend, has visited him for years, she explodes.

‘Why did you lie, then?’ The pinch of confusion on his face made her feel like a madwoman. ‘I didn’t lie. I just never thought to mention it. She hasn’t been here in seven months. Why are you so mad about this?’

They quarrel. Sam gets up to leave, and Dennis is so upset he bangs “the divide with the heel of his hand.” He shouts, “Marry me!” and presto, they’re engaged. They wed with each on one side of a prison glass divide. Miraculously, evidence is soon found that exonerates Dennis. Lloyd cleverly shines a spotlight on the appeal of an incarcerated spouse—because Sam is very scared about the new reality. She “had grown used to their relationship as it was, separated by a thick Plexiglas wall.”

Out in the real world, their differences sprout up—Dennis is secretive, obsessed with exercising and eating nutritiously, whereas Sam feels nurtured by “luminous iced ring donuts” washed down with a “giant iced coffee.” Par for the course for newlyweds?

Incidents crop up after they go back to Dennis’s childhood home. Not everyone is glad to see him. He quarrels with a shopkeeper who tells him he doesn’t want his business. A few days later, Sam and Dennis are visited by a cop who asks if Dennis killed the shopkeeper’s dog. The dog was “gutted, torn apart.”

Here’s where it gets interesting. The officer asks Sam to confirm Dennis’s whereabouts, and she lies: “He was with me,” she said again, fixing her eyes on his. “All night.” It’s the first such instance in their marriage, so she confronts him, and it doesn’t go well.

‘You want points for lying or something? I was here. I went for a run around the woods, that’s it. They’re just bothering me like they always did.’

Doesn’t she believe him, Dennis asks? “You know, you’re either on their side, or you’re on mine.” What can Sam say? Of course, she believes him, trusts him … or does she? Imagine being married to someone and weighing the evidence of what you begin to discover versus embracing an uprooted life that depends for its validity on trusting someone you don’t actually know that well.

Lloyd keeps the reader guessing until the very last page. Make sure you have an excuse for being sleepy at work the next day because The Innocent Wife is unputdownable.

 

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Janet Webb aka @JanetETennessee has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on the books of Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Anne Perry … I'm always looking for a great new mystery series.

Read all of Janet Webb's articles for Criminal Element!

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