Tana French’s Crime-Fiction Masterpiece

Tana French’s Crime-Fiction Masterpiece

The Art of the Twist

Tana French’s procedural masterpiece.


Toby Hennessy, the narrator of Tana French’s extraordinary new crime novel, The Witch Elm, tells us in its first line that he’s always regarded himself as “a lucky person.” He’s got a fine job directing public relations for an art gallery, and he lives in a bright apartment in a quiet neighborhood of Dublin—though he’s been talking with his girlfriend, Melissa, about getting a place together. Melissa is another manifestation of Toby’s luck; she’s as kind, sweet, and understanding as they come. Even when he stays out late, drinking himself into insensibility with his friends and casually exchanging glances across the bar with an “extremely pretty brunette,” Melissa still texts him smileys and kisses and tells him to “Say hi to the guys from me.” She’s just that kind of girl.

Toby’s luck extends to his family—they’re well-off, stable, and in possession of a grand old ancestral manse, Ivy House, that stands in a hidden, woodsy pocket of the city. They meet there on Sundays for raucous lunches with Uncle Hugo, the house’s present owner and caretaker. Ivy House figures heavily in Toby’s memories and, in time, will provide The Witch Elm with its main plot.

Ivy House is a wonderful creation; French provides just enough detail to goose the reader’s brain into filling in the rest. Like a previous noteworthy house from French’s oeuvre, the grandiosely ramshackle Whitethorn House in The Likeness, with its “worn stone steps,” “great brass knocker,” and “big rusted key,” Ivy House serves as a repository for all the reader’s sentimental notions of a life that once was, or could have been. “All it takes,” Toby tells us, “is one whiff of the right smell—jasmine, lapsang souchong, a specific old-fashioned soap that I’ve never been able to identify—or one sideways shaft of afternoon light” to bring him back to those halcyon days when everyone got along and, as far as he can remember, nothing bad ever happened. The Witch Elm, in other words, hastens to let you know that something bad definitely happened at Ivy House, and that it’s come back to haunt poor Toby. What that event actually was, on the other hand, the book takes its own sweet time to reveal—160 pages, more or less.

If you’re inclined to worry that this is too long to wait for a story to begin, you needn’t. The first third of The Witch Elm is veritably packed with plots, most immediately the one that’s on Toby’s mind during his inebriated night out with the boys. It seems that the head of exhibitions at the gallery, a frustrated artist and “long-chinned hipster” named Tiernan, has decided to mount a show that features representations of urban life made by marginalized Dublin kids—“scuzzy youths with low-grade criminal records,” as Toby characterizes them.

The idea is met with enthusiasm by the gallery’s benefactors and, as opening night draws near, garners massive media attention, particularly because the exhibition will show the exuberant work of a mysterious artist named Gouger. It appears that Gouger refuses to reveal his true identity to anyone but Tiernan; he has to remain incognito, lest his many enemies in the city’s criminal underworld manage to track him down.

Yet Gouger turns out to be a fiction: Toby catches Tiernan touching up one of the elusive artist’s alleged paintings. Toby thinks the whole thing is hilarious and agrees to keep the secret—but then the boss finds out, fires Tiernan, finds a pretense to pull the Gouger pieces from the show, and lets Toby off with a reprimand after the latter promises to smooth it all over in the press.

The plan works. Still, the whole situation bothers Toby; he worries that there might be unforeseen consequences. At the pub that fateful night, Toby boasts of the deception to his friends, easygoing Sean and working-class Dec, who think he’s a fool for having risked his job to keep Tiernan’s secret. “You’re a lucky little prick,” Dec tells him angrily before they all become too drunk to argue, and Toby heads off for home on foot.

“After that,” he tells us, “my memory of the evening gets patchy for a while. Of course in its aftermath I went over it a million times.” Toby remembers that he picked up some takeout along the way; he thinks he may have watched Netflix or played some Xbox before he went to bed. Then, in the middle of the night, he awakes to the sound of intruders in the apartment. He grabs a candlestick, turns on the lights, and finds two tracksuited men going through his drawers and unplugging his TV. Confidently and foolishly, Toby attacks, and before long is beaten nearly to death. He manages to stagger into the hallway, where he blacks out; the next thing he knows, he’s lying in a hospital bed, being told by detectives that his home has been ransacked and his car stolen, and by the doctors that he is faced with years of experiencing seizures and undergoing physical therapy.

Poor Toby can’t seem to take it all in: “Only some tiny peripheral part of me began to understand, with a sickening drop, that this was in fact my real life now.” In the weeks that follow, Toby can’t help but wonder, “Did I shoulder someone at the bar?… Was the brunette’s roid-rat ex snarling in some unnoticed corner?” Or was the break-in connected to the fraud at the gallery? In a fog of drugs and pain, Toby briefly convinces himself that the imaginary Gouger has become real and exacted revenge on him for being ousted from the exhibition.

Despite several rounds of questioning by a pair of police detectives—interrogations that fill Toby with feelings of anxiety and persecution—the hunt for the thieves peters out. The detectives tell him that they’ll be in touch, and Toby returns home, where he rejects Melissa’s repeated offers to come stay with him, and lies awake at night in a fugue of post-traumatic stress.

Neither Toby nor we have long to wait, however, until the book’s next plot twist arrives, in the form of a call from his cousin Susanna: Uncle Hugo has just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He’s dying and needs somebody to stay with him at Ivy House. Does Toby want to do it? He is, after all, taking a recuperative leave from work.

Toby rejects the offer at first, but eventually comes around and brings Melissa with him. The three of them form something of an ad hoc family and fall into an unexpected idyll: Uncle Hugo is cordial and welcoming, Toby sees his physical and mental health slowly improve, and Melissa begins to seem less like an unresolved problem to him and more like a permanent companion.

Uncle Hugo also puts Toby to work. A genealogist, Hugo’s been attempting to solve a knotty problem: One of his clients, Mrs. Wozniak, has discovered, through an online DNA-analysis service, that she’s related to a family she shouldn’t be. This genealogical search inaugurates yet another subplot as Hugo and an increasingly absorbed Toby try to get to the bottom of the puzzle.

It isn’t long before Toby finds it hard to imagine leaving Ivy House or Uncle Hugo actually dying. The big family Sunday lunches come to seem more like an imposition or an invasion, what with Susanna, her mild-mannered husband, and their rowdy, uncontrollable children; snarky cousin Leon, on indefinite leave from his boyfriend in Germany; and all the various uncles and aunts. But there’s one positive effect from these visits: The cousins convince Toby to broach the topic of the house with Hugo. They don’t want their childhood memories sold off; they want Ivy House to stay in the family. Toby agrees, and Hugo, confronted with the need to make a decision, calls a family meeting.

Up until this point, a third of the way through the novel, it’s reasonable for any reader familiar with French’s inventive Dublin Murder Squad series of police procedurals to wonder what the hell is going on. The Witch Elm has given us a cascading series of dramatic story lines, each intriguing in its own way, but apparently unrelated. Yet aren’t these all supposed to be pieces of the same puzzle? How will the art fraud connect to the break-in, or to the fate of Ivy House, or to Mrs. Wozniak’s rogue DNA?

Historically, I’ve tended to prefer crime fiction written in a minimal style, fiction that has Raymond Chandler as its ancestral avatar. This doesn’t represent some overarching personal bias against writerly elaboration; rather, there’s something about the genre that lures its practitioners into unnecessarily discursive explorations of mood and theme. I’m thinking here of the lugubrious excesses of Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels, or the comically lavish violence of Stieg Larsson’s Girl series, which go awfully far to prove the ultimately shallow thesis that people are sad and bad. And even otherwise restrained crime writers can’t seem to resist providing a dark and brooding musical playlist for their detectives to listen to, as though they’re already scoring, in their heads, the HBO miniseries they hope the book will eventually become.

But French is the rare maximalist crime writer who seems unsusceptible to these clichés. Her narrators are loquacious, yet they never bore; she’s a master of setting scene and filling in backstory in a way that makes these contextual necessities feel not workmanlike or utilitarian, but like vital elements of the story in and of themselves. A surprising amount of The Witch Elm’s bulk comes from long blocks of expository dialogue—a technique I find insufferable in almost every writer but French. And when her protagonists indulge in pages of chin-scratching about their own nature, or baldly telegraph impending catastrophe—both hallmarks of Toby’s bewildered first-person narration—I find it electrifying rather than stultifying.

In other words, maybe there’s nothing wrong with baroque artifice, as long as Tana French is doing it. The Likeness is an undeniable masterpiece of its genre, and one of my favorite novels of all time; and its premise—a victim who is the exact doppelgänger of the detective tasked with solving her murder—is perhaps the most preposterously implausible of any story I’ve read. It isn’t that French is ignoring the essential fakeness of crime fiction; she embraces it and delights in it. Her narratives foreground their artificiality, refine and deepen it, so that it’s ultimately revealed as a profounder kind of truth: the truth that we are all fronting, all the time, especially to ourselves. We see this in French’s earlier novels, too—the excellent The Secret Place springs to mind, with its private school full of teenage suspects, divided into cliques and trying desperately to be something other than what they think they are.

Toby, then, is right in the pocket for French: He’s so deep into his own artifice that he doesn’t recognize that’s what it is. He thinks he’s a pretty terrific guy and ignores any evidence to the contrary; whatever happens is pretty much OK with him, and everything will work out in the end. In the aftermath of his brutal attack—his first major misfortune, and the first of many to come—the thing that frightens him most is the possibility that some essential part of this great shining self is gone: He can’t remember parts of his life, can’t seem to finish a thought. He is facing, for the first time, the possibility that he is, in some fundamental way, incomplete.

When the book’s main plot arrives at last, Toby’s unease is transformed into a full-blown crisis. That’s because, during the family meeting at which the fate of Ivy House will be decided, Susanna’s mischievous young son climbs up the ancient wych-elm tree in the garden (I’ll blame marketing for the pointless and misleading misspelling in the book’s title), reaches into the giant hole in the trunk, and pulls a human skull out by the hair. Chaos ensues; the police are called; the garden’s upended and the tree felled. Turns out there’s a whole decade-old skeleton in there, and it belongs to Dominic Ganly, a teenage acquaintance of Toby’s previously thought to have drowned at sea.

Everybody knew Dominic, though Toby remembers him as little more than a decent enough guy who was, you know, around. He’d come to the parties they threw at Ivy House, parties all the kids were at—Susanna and Leon, Toby’s mates Sean and Dec. It seems that Dominic was last seen at one of these parties, in fact. So how did he get into the tree?

The police question everybody, and soon Toby is being asked to rely on his own spotty memory to prove his innocence. To deflect them, he pretends that his amnesia is more consequential than it is, dissembles and blathers like a guilty man, and half-convinces himself of his own line of bull, until he’s not entirely sure that he didn’t kill Dominic—who has emerged, through the police questioning, as having been something of an asshole. Toby comes to think that his cousins are plotting against him and hatches his own plot to deceive them, in defiance of Melissa’s increasingly desperate pleas.

The rest of the book gives us a dazzling series of twists and turns, betrayals and reconciliations, revelations and conflicts; French drops the pieces into place with masterful skill. Just when you think you’re a step ahead of her, she dashes your hopes with a stray observation or a devastating scrap of dialogue. Ultimately, you get all the answers you think you wanted, and so—unluckily for him—does Toby.

I read The Witch Elm against the backdrop of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, in which Christine Blasey Ford, once an acquaintance of the nominee’s, alleged that he’d sexually assaulted her at a party in the 1980s. The truth of the allegation aside—most people found Blasey Ford’s account highly convincing—Kavanaugh’s reaction to it was telling: not necessarily as an indication of his guilt, about which Americans seem hopelessly divided, but of his level of privilege and entitlement. This moneyed white man, groomed to rise through the ranks of elite institutions and assume the reins of power, reacted to the senators’ questions with bouts of defensive rage and tears, as though even to suspect someone with his credentials represented a miscarriage of justice. He lied casually about small details—his drinking habits, sexual proclivities, and social schedule—like a man who has never once been called on a lie in his life. Blasey Ford, on the other hand, spoke like a person accustomed to being endangered and doubted—a state that will likely feel familiar to most women.

The privileged don’t get it, the hearings taught us, because they don’t have to. For most of them, there never is a reckoning. The Witch Elm offers us a brilliant take on this dreary truth, with the added bonus that justice is actually realized in the end—if only obliquely, unexpectedly, and not through the established channels. Perhaps that makes The Witch Elm less of a crime novel and more of a fantasy. Either way, it’s one of Tana French’s best books, which makes it one of the best of its kind, period.

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