Infinite Post Scroll

Book & Author Review: Tana French

author_photo_tana french

Reposted from the Mystery/Crime Blog Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room: Part 1, Overviewappeared on September 22, 2012. Part 2, In the Woods, followed on September 29, 2012.


Young, talented Tana French (born 1973) is an Irish novelist whose debut psychological murder mystery/crime thriller won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards for best first novel. To date, she has written four books,* all published in the US by Viking Penguin (the abbreviations are used within the blog posts; the page numbers refer to the hardbound editions):

In the Woods (TW, 2007—award winner for best first novel)

The Likeness (TL, 2009)

Faithful Place (FP, 2010)

Broken Harbor (BH, 2012)

All of French’s tales, which we will look at in more detail next week, probe the underbelly of a society known to Americans only as the stuff of St. Patrick’s Day and The Quiet Man, enabling us to peer into the heart of Ireland through the eyes of its troubled inhabitants—yet with the perspective of an outsider. The daughter of an economist father who worked on resource-management projects in the developing world, French grew up in Ireland, Italy, the US, and Malawi before settling in Dublin in 1990. Because she did not grow up in Dublin, French has said that her relationship with her new hometown is the perfect vantage point for revealing the lifeblood of a place she loves without having actually been molded or enfolded by it, as her characters inevitably are.

French also acknowledges that her actor’s training at Trinity College, Dublin, was excellent preparation for her meandering, this-is-my-story narrative structure: the tales are all told by a central character, each successive book’s story-teller pulled from the ranks of the preceding novel. Her dramatic dialogue, both interior and interlocutory, captures the essence of relationships that are often twisted, but sometimes tender. And her settings are frequently the lurid, phantasmagorical interior landscapes of her protagonists, offering up worlds that seem to have been designed and sketched in blood—almost as dark, viscous, and brutal as the murders that provide the framework for the stories. In the course of pursuing their ruthless, sometimes perverse brand of justice, the policemen/women of the fictitious Murder and Undercover Squads attempt to create order from the chaos they find in the external world while battling the demonic dimensions of their own internal lives:

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. . . . What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie. [TW, pp. 3, 4]

These novels are masterful explorations of the human psyche, which endures repeated collisions with an unholy reality populated by untrustworthy beings. The stories become eloquent contemporary explorations of the human soul as it struggles to survive the ravages of life that too often leave its victims broken and bereft. Whether scenes and events are exterior or interior (or somewhere in between), they contrive to give us glimpses into lives so traumatized by circumstances—and the hell that is other people—that it becomes difficult to know whether the relentless clawings and scratchings that drive the characters mad live in the walls of their houses or in the corridors of their minds. Yet the world French creates is not so much psychotic as it is labyrinthine, a frightening, near-hopeless maze of devastating experiences and eerie perceptions:

I kept staring at my hands, till they slipped out of focus and turned into strange white things crouched on the table, deformed and maggoty, waiting to pounce. Finally I heard the door close. The light raked at me from every direction, ricocheted off the envelope’s plastic window to spike at my eyes. I had never been in a room that felt so savagely bright, or so empty. [BH, p. 384]

French’s writing style is much like Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic technique: both are laden with suspense, suggesting almost otherworldly planes of existence through evocative, atmospheric story-telling; yet nothing supernatural ever happens. It is the workings of the characters’ minds—their impressions, interpretations, moods, emotions, associations—that invoke a sense of what lies beyond the deceptions of surface life, a world creeping with menace and things unfathomable. Dark and tangled woods, obsession-driven archeological digs, ragged claw marks in children’s shirts and attic beams, mysterious doppelgängers (“evil twins”), and the strident shrieks and ugly betrayals of families and friends conjure up a bleak, richly metaphorical world that works on us, blurring our sense of reality. Whether French is describing shadows in the environment or the specter of what the external world conceals, her images take us to places we must see with eyes that have grown accustomed to the dark.

Adding to the pervading sense of unreality, French plays with time sequencing. Her story-tellers give us generous helpings of hints about the outcome of their tale right at the outset. The narrator is still alive at the end; we know that. But how much of his or her mind survives the ensuing events? By midway through each book, we know that something is going to go very, very wrong. Witness the defeated, sagging spirit of a narrator consumed with self-loathing before he ever tells us why:

When I think about the Spain case, from deep inside endless nights, this is the moment I remember. Everything else, every other slip and stumble along the way, could have been redeemed. This is the one I clench tight because of how sharp it slices. . . . I knew Richie was lying to me. [BH, p. 225]

But do not be put off by French’s benighted tales of human travails. Despite all of the desperation and torment of her characters’ lives, we often see a dim light at the end of the tunnels they are pulled through. We hold out some hope that the protagonists’ higher natures will beckon them to some kind of better future, that the noble will emerge from the feral. Even in the densest woods, leaves part to allow light to filter onto the footpath, revealing a new way home. And for all of French’s digging around in her characters’ murky minds, she loves them. Some of them even love each other. For almost every character that sacrifices a family member, friend, or stranger to the forces of uncontrollable impulse and self-preservation, there is another that selflessly protects a loved one:

Let me tell you the biggest secret I’ve ever learned. . . . All we really need in life is to make the people we love happy. We can do without anything else.  . . . [BH, p. 193]

Next week in Part 2, we will take a closer look at the four novels and how French takes us on her precarious journeys with one eye trained warily on her disturbing situations and the other focused laser-like on their profound effects on her characters. Although all of the stories are set in and around Dublin, which colors and texturizes the dialogue and setting, the themes are universal. Many of us will never give voice to the churning emotions that underlie our lives. But stark novels such as those of Tana French do this for us. Reading them from the safety of our beds and chairs, such tales save us some of the pain of confronting the sins and sadnesses of the outside world as we go through our daily lives. With the help of a perceptive author, we can vicariously gather needed insight into human nature. Thus enlightened, perhaps we can protect ourselves from a few more bumps in the night while we rest before confronting another day.

*Her fifth book,The Secret Place, was published in September 2014.


This marvelous first book, one of the selections of our reading group at Marilyn’s Flemington, NJ bookstore, explores the treachery of memory. The protagonist-narrator, Rob Ryan, along with his joined-at-the-hip partner and friend, Cassie Maddox, are Dublin Murder Squad detectives in pursuit of the killer of a young girl whose body was found near an archeological dig. Both the dig and, especially, the woods become a metaphor for the protagonist’s arc in the novel: Rob has a very strange and troubling past that he seems to have completely repressed, but that beckons to him with skeletal claws from deep within his subconscious mind (page numbers refer to the hardcover edition):

The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises—rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye.  . . . [p. 2]

It is Rob’s fractured voice, heard in last week’s post (What I am telling you . . . is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie. [p. 4]), that takes us on a journey exploring memory and its connection to truth. About 20 years before the current action of the novel, Rob was found catatonically hugging a tree after the disappearance and presumed killing of a small group of children in the woods near their home. Because he remembers nothing, he reads to us from his own case file that when he was found he was wearing white cotton socks that were soaked with blood from the outside in, white lace-up running shoes that were more heavily blood-soaked from the inside out, and a white cotton T-shirt with four parallel tears running diagonally across the back. He does not remember what happened to him or to his three friends, with whom he was planning to run away from the adult world and “into legend.” And he doesn’t want to.

As the lone survivor of an apparently horrific crime, Rob (whose childhood name was Adam) has locked the black box of his childhood memory—and thrown away the key?—as he and Cassie set out on Operation Vestal, hiding his identity from even her. Yet despite the power of Rob’s conscious mind to defend itself against the ravages of the deep past, his subconscious mind has a potent urge to regurgitate what he has long repressed. His cause—to protect himself from the truth, whatever the cost—requires him to evade honesty in the present as he compromises the current investigation and sacrifices his relationships. The damage to his psyche is so severe that he cannot relate to anyone on anything like a vulnerable human level—relationships require, at minimum, emotional honesty. The child still alive within the man scorns not only human companionship, but often human decency. He both loathes and longs for the irretrievable aspects of himself, becoming surprisingly unsympathetic. As he grapples with his need to shelter his tender, authentic self, he expresses the hateful, uncompromising coldness of his ego-self:

“. . I’ve been trying to reach you all evening,” Cassie said.

“I really can’t talk now. . . .”

“Rob . . . this is important—”

“I’m sorry . . . I’ll be in work at some point tomorrow, or you can leave me a note.” I heard the quick, painful catch of breath, but I put the phone down anyway. [p. 355] 

Even a sociopath, whom French draws expertly in this book, seems to offer greater human connection for Rob than anyone he cares for or respects—especially his beloved Cassie. And even she becomes acquainted with duplicity, both in her professional life and in her deeply personal world. But sometimes, from the morally bereft, clear and calm mind of a criminal who is permanently dislodged from honesty, our own struggles with the truth are mirrored back to us:

“. . . if hearing the truth puts you in an uncomfortable position, that’s really your own fault, isn’t it? You shouldn’t have got yourself into this situation. I don’t think I should be expected to make allowances for your dishonesty.” [p. 398]

By the end of the tale, Rob appears to be a lost soul damned to keep running within his own mind, endlessly evading the awful memories buried deep within it that want to chase him to the death. We both ache for and hate him for his inability to come to terms with the reality of who he is—and was. But cleverly, French employs the sociopath as a neat device for pulling the other characters—and us—into his world, perhaps evoking empathy:

I am intensely aware . . . that this story does not show me in a particularly flattering light. . . . But before you decide to despise me too thoroughly, consider this: [the sociopath] fooled you, too.  . . . I told you everything I saw, as I saw it at the time. And if that was in itself deceptive, remember, I told you that, too: I warned you, right from the beginning, that I lie. [p. 409]

All of the characters, Rob especially, evoked strong feelings in our book group and left us wanting more from the troika of Rob, Cassie, and their other partner, Sam. Beyond even that, though, like almost all other readers (see the various forums on the Internet), most of us had a powerful reaction to how it ended. Some felt frustrated; others, perhaps fewer, were intrigued. Both groups, take heart: in Tana French’s interview with Goodreads, she said she may be bringing back some of her characters, including Rob and Cassie.**

This is a story of loss of one kind or another, which I will leave readers to explore for themselves. But perhaps I can say that while we might not get to puncture the veil that surrounds every straggling mystery, we retain a hope that somehow, someday we will get not only resolution, but redemption.

**French’s interview with Goodreads also discusses her other books and aspects of her writing.