'a frame of sadness'
Dr Edmond Locard was at the vanguard of forensic science at the start of the 20th century helping to develop the method of fingerprint identification as well as stating the basic principle of forensic science, Locard's exchange principle, expressed in the phrase that gives this novel its title. There is a murder at the centre of this debut novel but as well as being a locked-room mystery it is also a love story. I was tempted towards reading it after some positive words from other book bloggers and the hope that it might deliver something along the lines of Donna Tartt's stunning debut The Secret History. Casual book browsers may well be tempted by its snow-white cover and scarlet-edged pages; the very book itself seems to be steeped in blood.
Lawyer Alex and his wife Rachel return to their alma mater, Worcester College, for a dinner. As they make there way out of the grounds at the end of the evening Rachel asks to take one last look at the lake, leaving Alex to wait where he falls asleep in his slightly drunken state. He is awoken by a scream which sends him running towards the lake where he finds Rachel brutally murdered. Alex is naturally arrested and questioned and it is sometime before he emerges from both that interrogation and the numbing effects of shock. Slowly (this will become an important word in this review) he begins to ask the right questions in trying to find out not just who might have murdered his wife but who Rachel Cardanine really was. - 'Something, or someone, is twisting the lens on the camera that is my memory, so that the focus sharpens, questions are beginning to occur to me that did not then and should have done.'
'How does one describe a life?' Alex asks himself at one stage as Rachel's lies in bits across his floor one night; a collection of membership cards, certificates, school reports, scribbled notes and photographs. We often tell the tale of someone's life and what this novel makes clear is that whilst we might have our own narrative of those closest to us, there may be competing narratives to contradict that picture entirely. Slowly, painfully slowly at times, Alex unearths physical clues about Rachel but it is his conversations with her old tutor Harry that provide huge chunks of information. Both Harry and Alex refer to them as stories and combined with those of her godmother Evie and Alex's own mining of his past we begin to see a picture emerge from 'the tapestry' of his grief. Depicted as something of a sexual tease whilst at university, Rachel was the subject of much muttering, with even Alex's closest friend remarking back then that 'Women like Rachel Cardanine...tend eventually to get what it is they seem to be asking for, whether they like it or not.' Might Alex discover that the woman he admits to not knowing much about really have deserved such a brutal end?
Alex's meetings with Harry happen in his rooms at Worcester College and the return to that location is important for the full immersion that Alex undergoes. 'The directions our memories take us in are so easily swayed, are they not, by our surroundings' says Harry before adding 'It's important, Alex, that things are revealed to you in the right order, so you may see them as I have done.' This insistence from Harry is just one way in which the novel drags in places. Alex's digressive narration is wilfully obtuse and circuitous at times, which may lead to a build in tension but only in this reader's shoulders as I longed for us to get closer to the conclusion. A childhood trauma of Alex's is never properly explained, the 'don't trust anybody' aspect is only partially successful because one character in particular is always less trustworthy than others, and it's entirely possible that the revelation at the end will come as no surprise to some readers.
The book is really more successful as a study of grief. This isn't just because Alex's grief dictates the pace and structure of the book but because his life is tinged with it long before he ever meets Rachel. Not only have both his parent's passed away but his family life was effectively killed before that by that traumatic event I mentioned earlier. Rachel herself literally orphaned and raised by her godmother and tutor Harry has been widowed. The spectre of loss and love hangs over nearly every character in some way. The trio of bright students that include Rachel, and for which Harry has a soft spot for, all choose the poet Robert Browning as the focus of their studies. Browning, a master of dramatic monologue, was known to probe the darker recesses of human psychology and his poem Porphyria's Lover provides not just the text for a series of letters with which Harry is taunted but also something of a thematic touchstone for the novel as a whole.
Tartt has been mentioned because this book, like hers, features an elite group of students and a university setting. That for me is where the similarities end. Even the cabal isn't as developed and mysterious here and the distance of narrator Alex from them during their time at university and the way in which he narrates the story of the aftermath means that this book never really gripped me in the way that Tartt's did. I never felt sufficiently invested, emotionally, in what was going on; I never really connected with Alex as a narrator, or Rachel as a character. It was Harry I felt for most of all, with his loss, his devotion and his investment in someone who never got the chance to fulfill their potential. It is he who, perhaps from experience, cautions Alex about where his quest for truth might ever lead.
There is this need in us always, isn't there, Alex, to find everything out, and to judge, so that there may be some final atonement for what has passed. The mistake we so easily make, all of us, is to assume that if we achieve those things, then we will have our solace.
The principle that everywhere you go you take something with you as well as leaving something behind isn't just applicable to science as the short marriage and long relationship of Alex and Rachel shows. Each of the characters on display here have been shaped by grief or loss and the impact of that can be seen in the way the book unfolds. My only worry is that it might fall between two stools. Fans of crime may be disappointed by the pace and digression whilst those looking for a more literary treat may be equally frustrated by some obvious characterisation and a few plot black-holes. And yet, even after all that, I have to be honest and say that at the time it felt like a good read. That feeling remains somewhere, as a trace, but a little reflection has dimmed it somewhat.