When Claire Salter moves to Amherst, Massachusetts, one-time home of poet Emily Dickinson, she takes to breaking into Emily Dickinson’s house at night as a way of coping with her many issues; like the fact that her mother committed suicide, and twelve months ago, her best friend, Richy, went missing. When, one night, she “accidentally” steals Emily Dickinson’s dress, Claire forms an unlikely alliance with her student-teacher, Mr Tate, to figure out what to do with it, which ultimately leads to the pair banding together to solve the mystery of Richy’s disappearance.
Between the theft of Emily Dickinson’s dress; Claire’s mother’s suicide; Richy’s disappearance; and Claire’s relationship with Tate, there is a lot going on in Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things and with the right author, this could have been a really good book. Unfortunately, Kathryn Burak is not that author. In spite of the fact that she is a university level writing teacher, this is only Burak’s first novel (she had previously published short stories and poetry), and she clearly lacks the skill and experience necessary to handle this many complex plot threads, any of which would have been enough to sustain a whole book in its own right.
In an ideal situation, all of the sub-plots mentioned above would have been interwoven throughout the whole novel, creating a tapestry of plot threads where no one sub-plot is ever allowed to drift to the back of the reader’s mind for long. However, as Burak seems incapable of managing more than one sub-plot at a time, what the reader gets instead is an episodic novel that focusses almost solely on one idea before moving on to the next. The first part of the book is all about Emily Dickinson and the dress (with so much detail on Dickinson’s life and poetry that, at times, I felt like I was back in high school English class), but once Claire has stolen the dress, Emily Dickinson is virtually forgotten, and the book becomes all about Claire dealing with her various issues including Richy’s disappearance, which is later declared a murder after his body is discovered. Then, in the final 80 pages of this 232 page novel, Claire and Tate finally get down to solving the murder.
Speaking of Richy’s murder, don’t expect to be able to guess the killer’s identity, because it’s just not possible. Until Richy’s killer is introduced, no other suspects are presented and the killer is only introduced when Claire identifies him as such. No reason is ever given for why he killed Richy, and Claire and Tate are able to prove his guilt far too easily due to the fact that he has conveniently kept several of Richy’s belongings lying around for over a year after the murder. If I had come up with a mystery sub-plot that lame, it would have never made it beyond the outlining stage, but clearly Burak and the Edgar judging panel don’t have such qualms.
In a year of mediocre nominees for the Best Young Adult Mystery Edgar Award, it comes as no surprise that Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things is a disappointment. However, given some of the other great YA novels that were published in 2012 and missed out on a nomination, I had hoped for much more.
Verdict: The idea of combining a murder mystery with the theft of Emily Dickinson’s dress is a fantastic one. Too bad that Burak lacks the skill to do this story justice.
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I’ve now reviewed all five nominees for the Best Young Adult Novel Edgar Allan Poe Award. Based on these reviews, here are my tips for the winner.
Should Win: Something other than one of the five nominated books, but since I have to choose, Crusher by Niall Leonard, as it’s the only decent mystery of the lot.
Will Win: Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield. Although the mystery elements amount to little more than a minor sub-plot, Rosenfield’s prose is stunning, and given the fact that the judges didn’t have a problem with short listing this book in the first place, I doubt they’ll hold the lack of mystery against it when it comes to choosing a winner.
Come back after the winner is announced on 2nd May 2013 to see whether I got it right.