Every Contact Leaves a Trace

Alex Petersen, the narrator in Elanor Dymott's debut novel, Every Contact Leaves a Trace, is a perennial type in British fiction: the dull, honorable husband who has waded out of his depth into the bloody waters of passion and revenge. "If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife," he begins, "I would have to warn you at the outset that I don't know a great deal about her." Rachel, for her part, is an equally familiar character. Fragile, unruly, and sexually omnivorous with a murky past, she will prove, predictably, to be as irritating to the reader as she is entrancing to Alex, who sees her clearly only in hindsight. That is, after she has been brutally murdered.     

Of an early, fateful encounter, Alex recalls, "She was playing some kind of a game with me," and this is the first of many warning signs that he misses. But is Alex merely dull or monstrous? The suspicion arises early on when he describes the gardens at Worcester College, Oxford, as "…a place to begin, as good as any other. Or, I suppose, as a place to die…to have you head stoven in by someone bringing a stone, lifted from the lake and covered in weed and scum, down onto your skull six or seven times as you crouch to the grass, your face getting closer to it with each blow…." The sudden violence of the language makes Alex seem, for a moment, either unreliable or unhinged, and Dymott skillfully teases us with this possibility throughout the novel. She also casts doubt on a fusty Oxford academic who seems to know more about Rachel's death -- and life -- than he has revealed to the police.

"It's important, Alex, that things are revealed to you in the right order, so you may see them as I have done," Harry Gardner, senior tutor and fellow in English literature, cautions when he invites the bereaved lawyer back to Oxford. In a series of fireside conversations (a setup that recalls any number of Victorian murder mysteries), Harry describes the three students he came to know, regrettably, too well. Rachel Cardanine, Anthony Trelissick, and Cissy Craig were inseparable and, Alex learns, notorious, not only for their drunken escapades but also for their shared sex life: "…just one big Oxford cliché," Anthony, the working-class outsider, later admits of the boozing, smoking, nudity, and naughtiness that Rachel seems to have choreographed.

The atmosphere darkens when Harry receives a series of anonymous letters accusing him of having killed his wife. Each letter contains an apposite quote from a Robert Browning poem. Furthermore, an essay of Rachel's titled "Robert Browning: Wife Killer?" appears to be have been originally written in another hand. Does the motive for Rachel's murder lie in the letters or the essay, in what she did or in what she knew?  

Alex believes that "…a narrative would eventually be constructed and lowered successfully into place on top of what had seemed at the outset to be a foundation of facts shifting so constantly about one another that they would not bear the weight of it." This happens, eventually. By then, however, so much has been incrementally revealed that the bright edge of suspense, honed so effectively by Dymott, has lost much of its sinister glint. 

 

About the Columnist
Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post and The New York Times among other publications.

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