Monday 19 February 2018

Review: What She Left - 'Unusual whodunnit grapples with immortality in social media age'

Ann Dunne

Here's a thought. Until recently, when you died - unless you were famous - all you left behind was a birth cert, a death cert, maybe some letters and perhaps a few photos. If you didn't write your name on the back of the photos, in a generation, nobody would remember you. Now, thanks to the advent of social media, we leave a lot more traces, even a deleted text message can be located.

Reflecting our changing times, TR Richmond grapples with the idea of a degree of immortality, in his unusual whodunnit. Richmond is an award-winning journalist who has turned his hand to fiction with this clever debut about love, obsession and revenge.

Alice Salmon is a young, vivacious investigative reporter. On a snowy, drunken reunion night at her old university town of Southampton she becomes separated from her friends. The following morning, she is found drowned in the local river, with cocaine in her blood.

Even before she is identified, posts begin to appear on the university forum. It is unclear whether her death was an accident, suicide or murder. The author presents the evidence through the eyes of an ageing and slightly creepy professor of anthropology, Jeremy Cooke. Alice is his former student.

Cooke tries to hang on to Alice's memory by compiling a book about her from a variety of sources which are alien to him and would have been unheard of just a few years ago: voicemail, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, forums, text messages along with Alice's own diary entries and newspaper interviews given by friends.

These are accompanied by Cooke's own long hand-written missives. A portrait of Alice is developed.

As a reporter, Alice had made many enemies through her fearless exposés on villains. There are a couple of ex-boyfriends who may or may not have been involved and some sinister trolls lurking on the internet. There are online accusations and counter-accusations. No-one is above suspicion - not even Cooke himself.

As is the case with the internet, not everything is true and threads tend to veer into sometimes amusing tangents. Richmond makes the reader work at piecing it all together. The various online posts and ripostes gradually give insights into the characters. Her best friend, Megan for instance, uses the media for self-aggrandisement.

There is fallout for family and friends as a result of the Alice book and Cooke's own past affairs are exposed. Though he professes to love his wife, we get a hint of her character as the woman he married "in a small flint church... the sunshine spearing through stain-glass windows". This is not an easy read. The evidence spans a few years and is not presented in chronological order. We are never even sure that there is actually a crime until the very end but the narrative is guaranteed to keep you guessing. What She Left is also a cautionary tale, which raises questions about the invasion of social media and the naivety and candour of young people who reveal so much about themselves online.

Fiction: What She Left

T R Richmond, Michael Joseph/Penguin, hbk, 384p, £12.99

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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