Review 1365: The Witch Elm

Best of Ten!
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.

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Day 1088: The Trespasser

Cover for The TrespasserBest Book of the Week!
Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series just gets better and better. One thing that makes it stand out is that it doesn’t feature a specific detective. Instead, the main character in each novel was a more minor character in the previous novel.

This novel, like the previous one, features Steve Moran and Antoinette Conway, but The Trespasser is written from the point of view of Conway rather than Moran. She and Moran are in a difficult position on the squad. Moran is a rookie, and Conway thinks that everyone on the squad wants her off. She has been faced with blatant sexism, and some of her cases have been threatened because of missing evidence or messages that have purposefully not been passed on.

Just as she and Moran are getting off shift, the boss sends them on what appears to be a standard domestic violence case. A young woman, Aislinn Murray, has been found dead in her flat, apparently the victim of a beating. Conway and Moran are taken aback because their boss insists that Detective Breslin also be assigned to the case.

Smelling a rat, Conway and Moran begin trying to work the bulk of the case behind Breslin’s back. Although they have an immediate suspect in Rory Fallon, the man Aislinn had a date with that night, he claims Aislinn never opened the door when he arrived. Breslin seems awfully set on focusing on Rory, and Conway catches Breslin discussing her and the case with his partner McCann, in a way that makes her suspicious.

I haven’t always liked French’s recent novels as well as I did her earlier ones, but this one is right up to form. She has created two fascinating characters with the belligerent Conway and her easy-going partner, Moran. The dialogue is really well done, and the conundrum of Aislinn’s life is interesting. This is a gripping novel.

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Day 582: The Secret Place

Cover for The Secret PlaceDetective Stephen Moran has been stuck on the Cold Case squad ever since he made his move to claim responsibility for a solved case in Tana French’s last book, Broken Harbor. But when Holly Mackey comes to see him, he thinks he’s found his opportunity to join the Murder squad.

A witness in a previous case, Holly is now 16 and attending St. Kilda’s, a private girl’s school where Chris Harper, who attended a nearby boy’s school, was found dead the year before on the grounds. It is so far an unsolved case, and Holly has information about it.

Holly explains that the school has a bulletin board called the Secret Place, where the girls can post anonymous messages. The school thinks this board is preferable to allowing the girls to use a social media site. That morning Holly found a message that said, “I know who killed him.” As she is a cop’s daughter, she removed it carefully with gloves and put it in a plastic bag to bring to Moran.

Moran takes the note to Antoinette Conway, the lead on the Harper case, hoping she’ll allow him to work with her. She has not had a lead in the case for awhile and is eager to follow it up. Once the two detectives begin looking into it, they find their suspects for posting the note and for being the murderer limited to two groups of four girls—one Holly’s group of close friends and the other a bunch of mean girls lead by a girl named Joanne.

Although this is not my favorite of French’s novels, she writes a strong, atmospheric mystery. I believe she is the premier writer of contemporary Irish crime fiction, and her work in many ways reminds me of that of Gillian Flynn. I like that her books are not series, yet they are linked by a minor character in one novel being the major character of another.

http://www.netgalley.comIn The Secret Place, French evokes an eerie atmosphere in the grounds of this posh girl’s school. This novel creates a fascinating psychological portrait of these two groups of teenage girls.

Day 146: Broken Harbor

Cover for Broken HarborBest Book of the Week!
I have eagerly awaited each new novel by Irish author Tana French ever since reading her first, In the Woods. She has only gotten better. A technique she has employed from the first is to use a secondary character from one book as her protagonist for the next–a creative way to provide continuity for a stand-alone story.

Mick Kennedy briefly appeared in French’s last book, Faithful Place, as a brash, abrasive cop. Although not all his coworkers like his bullheaded, aggressive manner, he has a high solve rate and goes completely by the book. He lands an important case, an attack on an entire family. Pat and Jenny Spain and their two children were attacked in their home in an upscale development that has floundered since the economic downturn–in Brianstown, which Mick knows as Broken Harbor. Only Jenny has a chance of surviving. Mick takes along as partner a rookie detective he thinks has potential.

When the detectives get to Broken Harbor, they find almost a lunar landscape of half-built, crumbling houses and rubble with only a few badly built occupied homes. The Spain’s house, however, is immaculate when you look past the blood. But something strange has been going on. Holes are smashed in the walls, monitors and cameras are strategically placed, and a vicious trap is set up in the attic. The computer has been wiped, and the “floaters” discover that someone has been camping out in a nearby house and spying on the Spains.

Broken Harbor holds a mix of confusing memories for Mick. His family spent two weeks there every summer when it was a modest fishing town. He was happy there, but at the end of the last summer, his mother committed suicide. Mick has been purposefully ignoring his unresolved feelings in addition to coping with a mentally ill younger sister.

Broken Harbor is a police procedural that becomes a riveting psychological suspense novel. Unlike with some of French’s earlier books, I was unable to decide between the competing suspects. But whether you can guess the solution or not, you’ll enjoy French’s novels. They are rich with complex characterizations and intriguing plots. The suspense builds as we begin to understand what was going on in the house and Mick begins to grasp how traumatized he actually is by the events in his past. The novel is dark and disturbing–just the kind of book I like!