Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
In What She Left, Richmond takes an old theme of did-she-fall-or-was-she-pushed to produce an exceptional book. After writing her own Prologue Alice Salmon is drowned. Her death is then discussed in online forums, and these sections herald a collage of her life ostensibly assembled by Jeremy Cooke, an elderly professor of anthropology. A serial philanderer, the dead woman was once his student and he loved her to distraction as he had adored her mother over two decades before.
Cooke’s project of deconstructing Alice’s life is received with varying degrees of resentment and suspicion by her family, friends, colleagues, and by criminals whom she’d been instrumental in sending to prison. For Alice, the wannabe writer, had become an investigative crime reporter and in the 21st century stalkers are old hat and online abuse is the new death threat. Alice’s circle was far-ranging, from loves and lovers to monsters and others consumed by jealousy or lust or just plain hate. She was a careless girl, emotionally a slow learner which made for trouble with men who in this context were no more than juveniles. Cooke himself is an amalgam of the clever and erudite scientist verging on renaissance man, but his obsession with sex (brief liaisons regardless of gender) ensured that, despite ambition, he has always languished below a glass ceiling that more balanced colleagues bypassed.
“Normal” personality in this perceptive novel is epitomised by two middle-aged women: Alice’s mother and Cooke’s wife, both focussed on him: fluctuating antagonists and supporters of a man demonstrably something between incorrigible lecher and wayward child.
And much loved as Alice was, by way of the memorabilia assembled by the author, as Cooke: excerpts from her diary, emails, tweets, newspaper items, Cooke’s own letters to his best friend and intimate in Canada, it transpires that her very depth of feeling coupled with her candour engendered corresponding hatred in those she loved too much.
There are red herrings galore. Despite one’s appreciation that this is a forensic jigsaw, an ingenious puzzle, despite a somewhat unsatisfactory ending and solecisms that may well be deliberate nothing can detract from the fact that this is an exciting book and a most promising debut.