how mysterious

Tana French Is Our Best Living Mystery Writer

Photo: Vulture

I thought I was a Tana French completist until I sat down to write this essay. I hound Viking’s publicity department so diligently for publication dates and galley copies that one member of the team, upon meeting me at a party, looked a bit unnerved and said, “Oh, you’re the Tana French nut.”

I’d read her novels with near-religious devotion ever since her 2007 debut, which I’d spotted at the Barnes & Noble by my parents’ suburban Philadelphia home and swallowed down in one long gulp. With each installment in her Dublin Murder Squad books — The Likeness in 2008, Faithful Place in 2010, The Secret Place in 2014, The Trespasser in 2016, and her first stand-alone, The Witch Elm, in 2018 — I’d hopscotched down the path of her rain-splattered, unsettling, unabashedly Irish mysteries. Yet somehow I’d missed Broken Harbor (2012), the fourth in the popular detective series. The oversight turned out to be a monumental blessing. Imagine it: You think you’ve read every scrap put out by your beloved favorite, but then a new book appears out of thin air.

Even before reading Broken Harbor, I already knew French was the best writer working in the genre. That’s the thing about her. She inspires the sort of loyalty usually pledged to mystery writers like Sue Grafton and James Patterson, whose mass-market paperbacks rest above the magazines in grocery-store aisles, span entire shelves at the local public library, and curl up with salty, dog-eared pages in beach rental houses. She puts out enough copy (seven novels in 12 years) to accrue followers in droves. Her writing leaves the undisputed King of the craft (Stephen) crowing over her “nervy, almost obsessive prose” in The New York Times Book Review. And like Ruth Rendell, Laura Lippman, Kate Atkinson, and a handful of others, she has rendered genre categories irrelevant (to the point where it isn’t always easy to find her novels in a bookshop).

But unlike even those genre-expanding novelists, French is the best mystery writer working today because she dispenses with the most alluring thing about classic detective fiction: the consistency of its point of view. The predictable horror of a mystery novel can be soothing. First comes the body, often bloody and mangled or bloated and rotting, shoved under a forest embankment or wrapped up in the formerly cozy domesticity of its own bedsheets. Then comes the crack mind who can alleviate our fear that some monster might get away with such hideousness and prove the world is unjust. It’s the detective himself (or herself, but let’s be honest, usually himself) who becomes the draw of a series. Detectives are by necessity smarter than readers (at least in these matters), and our relative stupidity provides the incentive to keep reading. It’s reassuring to watch them parse crime scenes into individual clues, scratch away at the motivations of perpetrators, serenely slide completed case files into their drawers. What dastardly villain will he capture next? How laconically can he mope about the countryside now? How many more concussions can one civil servant stand? 

If the most famous of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes, predicated the trend, most writers in Arthur Conan Doyle’s wake haven’t shaken it off. Their moods and tics are iterated to the point of automation. The detachment of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. The chess moves of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Miss Marple’s penchant for irritating the hell out of everyone with whom she comes into contact. Henning Mankell’s psychologically cauterized Kurt Wallander even makes coffee sadly. Among contemporary mystery writers, Rendell had Wexford, Lippman has Tess Monaghan. But French hasn’t designed a personality for readers to form a cult around; instead she has built a world — more a George R.R. Martin than an Agatha Christie, minus the beheadings (so far). From the start, she has tossed her detectives overboard rather than put them through the indignity of quantum leaping from mega-case to mega-case. She sticks with each detective or duo for their most psychologically intensive case, the one that leaves them shredded to ribbons. She invests in the precise psychology of what will break a particular detective, what the forces of society will do to one beleaguered mind.

French’s debut, In the Woods, introduces us to Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, partners and close friends who are investigating a teen girl’s murder in small-town Knocknaree, the same village Ryan grew up in — and where, after he and two mates had disappeared, he’d been the only child to leave the woods alive. By the end of the novel, Ryan is suspended and his career is disemboweled. Cassie stars in the next French novel, The Likeness; she is damaged after her stint with Ryan but is cajoled into embedding undercover when a dead woman shows up, a corpse that looks uncannily like her. After The Likeness, we won’t see Cassie again. Faithful Place belongs to Frank Mackey, the detective who convinced Cassie to go undercover, as he investigates the disappearance of his teenage sweetheart. In The Secret Place, Mackey reappears but as a father and in a much more restrained role. It’s a bread-crumb trail of personalities, with each novel leading us further into the squad and refining French’s vision of a world where even the detectives can’t be trusted — and where they can’t trust themselves.

French’s decision to cycle in new detectives isn’t the only thing that keeps critics, readers, and nuts like me in her thrall. While other mystery writers boil the world down and try to distill it into one crime, French takes the opposite tack: Each crime is a signal bearer for the state of our world. The Secret Place is as much about the damning insularity of the upper classes as it is a locked-room mystery. Faithful Place muses on fractured families in the wake of the Irish Catholic Church’s slow, self-inflicted demise. And Broken Harbor is a novel about the 2008 recession’s disproportionate effects on the middle class; it just so happens to have blood splattered all over it.

The further French’s Dublin stories unspool, the more they become detective adjacent. The new Starz adaptation of her first two novels, In the Woods and The Likeness (somewhat oddly stitched together as Dublin Murders), understands this instinct. If the TV series keeps up and skips on to Faithful Place and Broken Harbor and beyond, it will also, I hope, capture how adeptly French avoids turning her detectives into heroes or antiheroes. In a literary scene bursting with thrillers hovering around the same banal question — Is anyone really who they seem? — French shrugs and instead wonders how anyone can ever know anything about themselves. The detectives fuck up and suffer real consequences, but it’s their slinking off the page that makes them compelling. Right now, on TV and everywhere else, heroes and antiheroes alike outstay their welcomes. French’s most brilliant murders are perpetrated against her darlings.

In her latest act, The Witch Elm, French goes even further. The book, which exists outside the Dublin Murder Squad universe, upends itself with a mid-book twist, foresees the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and includes a 54-page confession that should be taught as a stand-alone novella in college writing classes. It’s almost as if the further French slips the bonds of detective fiction, the better she realizes her mysteries might be. The best detective-fiction novelist out there doesn’t think we even need the sleuths anymore.

I finished Broken Harbor around 2 a.m. on a Sunday night with only my tiny, clip-on reading light to guide me. I hadn’t guessed the ending, though in hindsight it didn’t surprise me. Then came the aimless feeling that drags behind the joy of finishing a French — along with the unnerving realization that the prospect of a new one is actually making me look forward to the fall of 2020.

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Tana French Is Our Best Living Mystery Writer