Tana French is really good at evoking an atmosphere of dread, the knowledge that things are not going to turn out well. In The Witch Elm, though, she departs from her usual Dublin Murder Squad series somewhat. Instead of a narration from the point of view of one of the cops, it is written from that of another character and takes quite a while to work up to the murder.
The novel begins with a crime, however. Toby is out for drinks with his friends celebrating not having been fired from his job. He works PR for an art gallery that had been preparing a show of disadvantaged artists put together by a man named Tiernan. Toby found out that the most gifted work was not done by the alleged artist but by Tiernan himself, but it was so good that Toby didn’t tell. Now his boss has found out and cancelled the show but is allowing Toby to minimize the damage.
After Toby arrives home, he is awakened by robbers, who beat him badly. He nearly dies and suffers neurological damage and memory loss. He is enraged, though, when the police detective implies that the attack was personal, so he must know his attacker.
During his recovery, he tries to keep his friends and family from realizing how badly hurt he was, and he is not happy when he is contacted by his cousin, Susanna. It turns out his Uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer, and Susanna would like him to stay with Hugo at his home, Ivy House, where Toby and his cousins, Susanna and Leon, lived every summer when they were kids. He decides to go, taking along his girlfriend, Melissa.
Although at first the time at Ivy House seems idyllic, the three enjoying living together only interrupted by family Sunday lunches, and Toby helping Hugo with his genealogical research, the house has a secret. When Hugo calls a family meeting to discuss the disposition of the house, Susanna’s son Zach finds a skull in a hole in the wych elm at the back of the garden.
Soon, the house is overrun by police, who discover a skeleton in the tree. The family imagines it could have been there a long time—until it is identified as Dominic Ganly, a schoolmate of Toby’s, Susanna’s, and Leon’s, a boy who supposedly committed suicide by drowning the summer after school ended.
Toby cannot imagine how Dominic got inside the tree, but his memories of that time are intermittent. Detective Rafferty, however, thinks he knows something, appears in fact to think that Toby did it. Toby starts to wonder if he did.
This is truly one of French’s darkest novels, about the damage small acts can create, even for innocent people, and about how people can be blinkered by their own interests. I was riveted throughout, wondering where it was all going.