In his first novel, Richmond captures the essence of a murdered daughter in a police case emotionally wracked with a sense of loss. The novel begins with an extract from an article by Alice Salmon, who has recently drowned in a river near Southampton. Pivotal to Alice’s fate are a series of letters sent by
64-year-old archeologist and academic Jeremy Cooke. Jeremy has been pining over Alice, who was his former student. Although Alice left his university in 2007, Jeremy remembers her as a bright, nice girl who was purported to have a great future in front of her.
Alice’s news has hit Jeremy hard, a man whose place in the world “has never felt entirely set.” Deciding to embark on an investigation and utilizing his role as an anthropologist, Jeremy compiles a “Save Alice folder” with the intention of researching, collating,
and hopefully publishing a book with the results of the investigation. While the aim is to bring Alice’s family some measure of comfort, Jeremy also wants to see how much of Alice is left behind and perhaps even achieve a sense of justice for her. Jeremy also wants to be known as that man who unearthed “the truth about the River Dane girl.”
Soon enough Alice’s past is flooding in, a life served up in a selection of photos, emails, texts, diaries, interviews, Facebook and Twitter postings,
and comments left at the end of online forums as well as newspaper articles written by Alice herself just before she died. Narrowing down the list of suspects, the Southampton police at first cast a suspicious eye on Alice’s boyfriend, Luke Addison. Luke threatened Alice the night she died;
she was going to finally confront him about what had happened in Prague. While Luke’s culpability accelerates with each new clue, Alice’s reputation soon becomes the stuff of local legend. As far as the police are concerned, Alice was drunk; she slipped and she drowned. Because she had alcohol and cocaine in her bloodstream, the case has remained an open verdict. Everyone from Alice’s friends to her ex-students and workmates are stirring it up with half-baked theories, some even
suggesting that Alice was a heroin user.
In homage to the huge repository of information driving our digital age, Richmond explores the power of social media and how it can influence our lives long after we have gone. Like dust particles floating in space, all the posts, blogs, emails and diaries only
confuse the search for Alice’s killer, a situation that not only brings out the worst in everyone but also leads the authorities to question Jeremy’s true intentions. Elizabeth Salmon, Alice’s mother, sends tear-filled emails to Jeremy ordering him to quit his project. The emails mask a veiled reference to possible legal action if Jeremy continues.
Given its unique structure—the solving of a young girl’s murder through the shattered remnants of her electronic record--I expected a much better-paced plot and a more dramatic denouement than Richmond delivers. It would have been a much more effective story if he had written it in a more conventional format and not utilized a plot device that works quite well for about a third of the novel.
At that point, it becomes a distraction, slowing the story down and confusing us even further as the story jumps backwards in time to Alice’s years growing up. Here chunks of Alice’s past are gradually illuminated in an alternately faithful and foggy terrain of recall.
From accusations that Alice and her best friend, Megan, were nothing but “drunk whores,” to the charms of a much younger woman whom Jeremy is keen to seduce, to a blackmailing student, to Luke, whose his boy-like vulnerability and temper masks a pathological inability to be faithful, the reader is called upon to authenticate, substantiate and separate fact from fable. This is a story in which lies, love, grudges, adultery, betrayal and even murder swamp the memory of Alice, a girl who battled depression and drank herself unconscious but also had the courage to foster her own future.
Although the ending came as a surprise, I wish the author had eased up on his plot device. All of usual voyeuristic themes are here, particularly jealousy as it multiplies out, spreading hate and hurt along with a hardened nugget of resentment. Still, the novel is mostly plodding and dull with journal entries that lack realism and a narrative that offers little to no real suspense, at least until the final few pages.