Every Contact Leaves a Trace, By Elanor Dymott

A moving and ingenious campus mystery unites a love story with a quest for the elusive truth
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Early in Elanor Dymott's debut novel, Alex, a grieving widower whose gregarious wife has been brutally murdered in the grounds of their old Oxford college, remembers her telling him about her undergraduate interview: "It was just a conversation about stories and how to tell them." The telling of stories is key to this compelling locked-room thriller, the title of which refers to Locard's principle about traces of evidence exchanged at moments of contact. Alex's unravelling of events relies on others accounts. It becomes apparent that however well-meaning the witness, their version will be skewed in their favour.

Alex was a loner before marriage. His family life ended catastrophically after an incident that split his parents. When he gains a place at Worcester College, he feels an outsider but is bewitched by Rachel. Men snipe that she's a tease, but is this sour grapes? The two marry.

It is on a trip back to their alma mater that Rachel is killed, a seemingly motiveless crime. Later, Alex begins to learn information that illuminates the mystery of her death. Dymott's debut is influenced by Donna Tartt's The Secret History in its depiction of a death at a prestigious institution. There's something of Ishiguro in the prose's precision, the methodical narrator, and the reader's unease about the characters' self-delusion. But there is no sense that the story is anyone's but Dymott's.

Psychological details reveal personalities – a noisy exit during a play; exhibitionist calling of tennis scores; rudeness to a porter. And although the reader's heart aches for Alex, who has glimpsed happiness only to have it snatched from his grasp, he too is flawed.

Dymott's capacity to conjure striking imagery is exceptional. She builds up suspense to an almost unbearable zenith before lightly side-stepping into a related subject. This is more than a murder mystery. It's an examination of the subjectivity of accounts of truth. It's a desperately moving love story about a lonely man who finds salvation in another only to have the idyll destroyed. Finally, it's a tale of revenge, served cold and deadly.

Comments