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Crime in Cambridge

My psychological thriller, Dear Amy, is set in Cambridge. I know Cambridge well – it’s my home and my alma mater. I was a student here in the dim and distant past and I moved back a few years ago to take up a job offer. Ultimately I left the job but decided to keep the town.

Corpus ClockI love it here, despite its impossible traffic and constantly flooding rivers of tourists. It’s a beautiful, compact space interconnected through a series of stately ancient buildings and exquisitely kept quads, and full of hidden treasure. One such is the Corpus Clock, which I loved so much when I saw it that I had to put it in the book.

Its primary export is people who think for a living – which makes it a wonderful place to write in. Indeed, Cambridge is a popular setting for crime novels and thrillers – Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, Fiona Barton’s The Widow, and the popular Grantchester mysteries by James Runcie all happen here.

Probably one of the most appealing things about Cambridge and its surrounds is also the littlest known – it is a place of contrasts. The city itself is a small medieval island of civilisation, privilege and gracious architecture, something the land wears like a crown, and is surrounded on all sides by the rolling bleakness of the Fens. In the Fens themselves, the wind tears in from the North Sea, without hills or valleys to impede it. It’s a beautiful but stark landscape full of big skies and little pools, by turns breathtaking and sinister.

dear amy by helen callaghanThis made it a great place to base Dear Amy in, as it nicely sets up and supports the contrasts in my heroine’s life. Margot is someone with a seemingly respectable life who nevertheless has a secret wildness lurking in her past. On the surface she is a very successful person, teaching Classics and English to the students at a prestigious private school, and married to an ambitious don who has just turned his hand to entrepreneurship – she is someone whose judgment is so admired that she is asked to be the agony aunt for the local paper.

But underneath it all, Margot is a woman with many things to hide – her husband has recently left her for a colleague. One of the students at her school has gone missing and Margot is tormented with fears for her safety, and now she is receiving letters from a woman who was kidnapped and presumed murdered nearly twenty years ago. It is these letters, and Margot’s pursuit of the truth, that threaten to tear open the pasted-over cracks in her history. It’s no accident that her journey in Dear Amy starts in Cambridge and ends on the Fens.

We are all the products of our landscape; the landscape of our imaginations just as much as the physical landscape we live in, and this is as true of fictional characters as it is of real people. Sometimes part of the work of writing is identifying which landscape is going to suit our characters and their journeys best.

helen callaghan
helen callaghan
Helen Callaghan

Helen Callaghan worked as a bookseller for eight years, working as a fiction specialist and buyer for Athena Bookshop, Dillons and Waterstones. Though she loved life as a bookseller, Helen was drawn back to her studies and after studying for her A-levels at night school, she went to read Archaeology at Cambridge University as a mature student. She now runs her own business and lives in Cambridge. Dear Amy is her first novel.

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