Elanor Dymott’s debut novel skillfully combines the visceral thrill of a murder mystery with the psychological portrait of a grieving man. In Every Contact Leaves a Trace, Dymott sets young English lawyer Alex Petersen on a quest to solve the brutal murder of his wife Rachel, who was struck down on Midsummer Night at their alma mater, Worcester College, Oxford. To track down Rachel’s killer, Alex must face his own sorrow, and also some unsettling revelations about the wife he thought he knew so well.
Dymott plays a measured game of hide-and-seek with the facts of the case, doling them out at a stately pace that matches the tradition-steeped setting. Disclosures from Rachel’s reticent English Literature tutor, Harry Gardner, tantalize and torture an increasingly perplexed and anxious Alex. Did his beloved wife really have a secret past, or is Harry keeping some secrets of his own? Dymott repeatedly brings Alex—and the reader—right up to the edge of an answer, before turning back in time and considering other perspectives. This sense of the ground moving beneath your feet mirrors Alex’s internal confusion as he tries to understand the enigma that was Rachel Cardanine.
Comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History seem inevitable, as Dymott similarly reveals the debauchery that can exist behind even the most revered collegiate traditions. Fireside tutorials, afternoon teas and costumed balls create a falsely comforting front for what’s really going on behind the rose garden walls: experimentation with sensual pleasure and pain that blurs the boundaries between good and evil. Rachel and her confederates are impressive poetry scholars in their tutor’s presence, but seem not to be above blackmail—or worse—when his back is turned.
How exactly did Rachel reconcile those boundaries? Is her murder simply proof to the contrary? As Alex gradually fills in the missing pieces of the puzzle, readers come to see this mysterious young woman’s life, and death, in a surprising new light.