Tana French is more into the why than the what . Why did somebody murder a teenager on the cusp of success in In The Woods ? A graduate student who was part of a close-knit group of 20-somethings sharing a grand house in The Likeness ? A young woman about to flee her stifling hometown in Faithful Place ?
Through six novels revolving around the Dublin Murder Squad and two standalones, French is less interested in who committed the crime than in the circumstances surrounding it. And in several cases, the person most guilty is not the one who is ultimately charged. It’s a family member, friends, economics, the culture as a whole. We’re all a bit guilty, she says, even if we don’t wield the gun or knife or shovel.
In The Woods , her first novel, begins with a prologue offering an omniscient view of a crime two decades before—we see the scene as though from above, in a sad, newly developed neighborhood surrounded by forest, as three children run out of their houses into an adventure in the woods. Only one returns, and he is damaged for life. He becomes a detective, Rob Ryan, who ends up assigned to a murder case of a child in those same woods 20 years later.
He’s dropped his first name and has wiped away his past as well as he can, so others on the murder squad don’t know he’s the little boy who returned from the woods with bloody shoes and four parallel tears in the back of his T-shirt while his two friends were never seen again. He has forgotten everything that happened that day; the original crime remains unsolved, but the new murder causes flashbacks.
Disguised as a police procedural, the novel is a case study of family and community dynamics and a psychological study of Ryan’s life since the original murders. When we’re finished, we understand the meaning of psychopath and of the cause and effects of a crime on the family, community, and the detectives investigating it. We’re left wondering about that first murder—those four parallel tears remain a mystery, and there are hints of the supernatural —but we have a clear vision of the trauma of surviving.
Prologues offer hints and perspective.
French continues the pattern of starting with a prologue that hints at the meaning of the book in subsequent novels. Her second, The Likeness , begins with the enigmatic line, “Some nights, if I’m sleeping on my own, I still dream about Whitethorn House.” Why the prominence of the house? It is the key to what happens, as are the ideals of home, family, and belonging. It all revolves around protecting the house while its spell controls and defines the lives of those who live under its graceful roof.
Central to life inside Whitethorn are five strangely close graduate students. When one is murdered, the police who are called in recognize her immediately—it’s Detective Cassie Maddox, whom we met in In The Woods . Only, it’s not: It’s a doppelganger, a young woman who has taken the identity Maddox created when she worked undercover. Maddox knows that whoever this woman is, she’s not Lexie because Lexie is not real. Because of her likeness, Maddox is assigned to move into the house and impersonate Lexie to help solve the crime, while the police provide a cover story that Lexie survived her attack.
What follows is a French-style study of how broken people can damage themselves and one another in their search for belonging. To the five main characters in this compelling narrative, that means complete fealty to their homemade family and to the house that is their physical and psychological home and their hope for the future. When these bonds break, nothing else can hold.
Some of this is difficult to buy. Do the people who spend all day, every day, with Lexie not notice that Cassie is a different person, no matter the physical resemblance and preparation? But it’s easy to dispel disbelief and just dig into this deeply told tale.
A sense of the supernatural
The supernatural also comes into play here, with nods to the fairy trees implicit in the name of the house, Whitethorn, and a sense that the air inside the house is psychically different from anywhere else, which creates a toxic mental fog.
As in other books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, most of the pieces fall together at the end, but French leaves us to make our own sense of much of it. Just like life.
Each book in the series stars a detective we’ve met in a previous book. Ryan narrates the first, and we see scant mention of him for the rest of the series. Likewise, Maddox disappears after the second, but Frank Mackey, her undercover boss, stars in the third and returns as a minor but captivating character in the fifth. Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy shows up in the third, then anchors the fourth. And so on. Characters we hadn’t thought much about become full-bodied beings, with backstories that can break a heart.
Most books have some sense of the supernatural, which plays better in some than in others. In The Secret Place , four young women end up levitating in the woods and breaking lights with their thoughts. But do they really, or is this just what it seems to them in the magical lives they have defined together? French leaves it up to us to figure out.
A few of French’s earlier books were written after the housing crash and recession of 2008 and deal with how this affected Ireland and threw some of the characters into a psychological crash. In both Faithful Place and Broken Harbor , dreams become nightmares when they are no longer within reach.
The first two books, In The Woods and The Likeness , were made into the eight-part Dublin Murders series, which, like the books, has left audiences pleased, perplexed, angered, or awed. Tana French doesn’t make things easy, and that is part of the reward of reading her.
Many of the novels leave us unsettled, wondering about both sides of the mystery equation—criminals and crime-solvers—all of whom have their own demons, real and unreal. And about the broader society that creates such untenable situations. French gives us credit for filling in our own blanks and living with some gaps. But she delivers every story with remarkable language, captivating imagery, and deep character development. Reading each book is an education in writing and in being human.