Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott is a debut novel that reminds us that even the people we think we know best can hide dark secrets (available May 6, 2013).
Alex is in his thirties, a solitary man who has finally found love in the form of his beautiful and vivacious wife, Rachel.
After Rachel is brutally murdered one Midsummer Night on the grounds of their alma mater in Oxford, Alex returns to the college that winter, and through the shroud of his shock and grief, begins to piece together the mystery surrounding his wife’s death. In his exploration of Rachel’s history, Alex encounters her former tutor and trusted mentor, whose influence over Rachel’s life was more significant Alex might have expected; Rachel’s self-centered and difficult godmother, whose jealousy has waxed and waned over the years; and her university friends, who shared Rachel’s love of Browning and taste for the illicit.
Every Contact Leaves A Trace is Elanor Dymott’s debut novel. As much as it’s a mystery, it’s a character study of both the narrator, Alex, and of his murdered wife, Rachel.
When the story opens, Rachel is already dead, and Alex is attempting to come to terms with the fact that she is no longer with him. Without her, he is a new and different person, and he seems to be integrating his old self with his new one by revisiting his memories. We experience Alex through his own words, but only see Rachel through his perceptions, and his memories and experiences of when other people spoke of her. Even the flashback scenes in which she is present are filtered through Alex’s memories.
What was most interesting to me was not, as I had expected, the murder mystery itself. Rather, I was intrigued by the mystery of Alex. One never knows if a narrator is trustworthy or not, and in a murder mystery there is always the chance that the narrator might be the murderer. Or is he simply more innocent than the people whom he observes? Dymott very skillfully paints a picture of Alex through the way he speaks of himself as well as the way he speaks of his dead wife, while at the same time withholding enough that the reader is driven to keep going, to find out more, to find out if some horrible truth is lurking just ahead.
Alex is revealed early on as an observer, always more comfortable on the outside of a group.
… I pulled pints and opened bottles in the Buttery bar, glad to be earning some cash and being in company in a way I could control. Within weeks I knew everyone by sight, and, through overhearing conversations and witnessing greetings again and again as I worked, most of them by name.
… I didn’t want to be among them, having to think of something to say. I felt that if I could stay in my room, with my books, I would be alright.
Alex’s thoughts about his wife are sometimes unexpected, and that contributes even more to making both of them seem more of a mystery. What did they have in common? What was their marriage like? It’s clear Alex grieves for her, but while feeling sympathetic, I could not help wondering, as the police did, if he had contributed to her death.
If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife, I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her. Or at least, not as much as I thought I did.
… I dream of Rachel every night, almost to the exclusion of anything else. I understand this to be quite normal in my situation, though I would have expected the frequency of these dreams to have decreased a little by now, or their content to have begun to vary more than it does, or that I might at least have started to hear something in them: since Rachel’s death, my dreams are all in silence. The one that recurs most often is of the night I found her body. I am not surprised by this, but I do find it strange that what seems to surface most often is not the moment I actually ran to her and found her, but instead, a brief episode that took place shortly after that. The first of the policemen have arrived in response to the porter’s call and I sit on the grass and listen as one of them asks me questions and I don’t answer because instead I am hearing the other policeman attempt to resuscitate Rachel.
If you like mysteries rich with atmosphere and possibilities, Every Contact Leaves a Trace might be a novel for you.
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