8/13/15 A Review of the Works of Tana French
It’s one thing when a writer wins a book award for a novel, especially if it is their first novel. But when the same writer wins awards for her subsequent novels, particularly if the novels are part of a series, you know something special is happening.
In 2008 Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, walked away with just about every major award for the “Best First Novel,” the Edgar, the Anthony, the Macavity, and the Barry Award. The novel was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 2012, her third novel, Faithful Place, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Broken Harbor, her fourth novel, won the Irish Book Award for Irish Crime Fiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the Mystery/Thriller category.
Ms. French’s five novels involve characters from the fictional Murder Squad of the Dublin Police Force. Each novel is capable of standing on its own, however, they are best read in succession because the narrator of each succeeding story is a major character from the prior novel. The stories aren’t connected, but the characters are. It’s as though Ms. French’s narrators are runners in a relay, but instead of passing the baton for the same race, the new runner is in a different race. It’s clever, and it works.
In the Woods is a layered mystery. Detective Rob Ryan is called to investigate the murder of a young girl found in a small woods in a Dublin suburb. It happens to be the same woods where twenty years earlier Rob was found gripping a tree, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall the events that led to the disappearance of his three closest friends. He keeps this secret from his partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox. Together they work to solve the murder of the young girl, while Rob seeks the truth of the long ago disappearance.
Cassie Maddox picks up the baton in The Likeness. This intense drama, reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, takes place six months after the events of In the Woods. Cassie is called to crime scene to look at a murder victim. French writes: “Then I took a step forwards, so I could get a proper look and the whole world went silent, frozen, darkness roaring in from the edges and only the girl’s face blazing white at the center; because it was me.” Not only is the victim the identical likeness of Cassie Maddox, but also she is carrying an ID identifying her as Alex Madison, an alias Cassie used when she worked undercover. Cassie must now go undercover as the victim, and live with a group of the victim’s friends that may have murdered the woman.
In The Likeness legendary Frank Mackey “the best undercover agent Ireland’s ever had” supervises Cassie. With Faithful Place we get to know Frank and his past. The title is drawn from a rough Dublin neighborhood where Frank Mackey grew up, and at the age of nineteen, he set about a plan to run away with his girlfriend, Rosie Daly, and start a new life in London. Frank waited for Rosie, but she never showed. He assumed she had rejected him. After all the Mackey’s and the Daly’s hated each other. Frank went on to London and never returned to Faithful Place until twenty-two years later when Rosie Daly’s suitcase in found in an abandoned house.
Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy was the detective from the Murder Squad assigned to Rosie Daly’s case and feuded with Frank Mackey’s personal involvement. He is the Murder Squad’s top detective and is assigned to the biggest case of the year. In Broken Harbor, a father and his two young children have been murdered, and the wife is in intensive care. Riddles permeate the story: baby monitors pointed at holes in the walls of their home, computer files erased, a suspicious intruder. The murders take place in the ocean view village of Brianstown where a new development of luxury homes has fallen to seed due to an economic downturn. Brianstown is the new name given to a neighborhood once called Broken Harbor, the childhood home of Scorcher Kennedy.
In The Secret Place, Moran is a detective in the Cold Case Division when sixteen year-old Holly Mackey shows up with a cryptic note that reads, “I know who killed him.” Holly is the daughter of Detective Frank Mackey, and she made a small but important appearance with her father in Faithful Place. Two years earlier the body of a teenage boy was found on the grounds of St. Kilda’s, a private boarding school for girls. Moran manages to worm his way into the Murder Squad to assist Detective Antoinette Conway in the investigation, while Frank Mackey hovers like a hawk over their shoulders, protecting his daughter. Ms. French’s style in The Secret Place deviates from her previous four novels. Here her chapters alternate points of view, from the first person point of view of Detective Stephen Moran, to third person point of view of Holly Mackey. The switching of perspectives and timelines tends to be a little disconcerting to the reader.
Ms. French excels at deep character studies. Telling her stories in the first person enables the readers to get a full sense of the characters thoughts, memories, pain, and passion. Her detectives are all flawed, primarily due to past events and because of a case they are required to revisit their past. Rob Ryan has witnessed a horror he can no longer remember; Cassie Maddox, forced to relive a near fatal stabbing while working undercover, must now risk her life again posing as victim; Frank Mackey fled his dysfunctional family and must return to them to solve the murder of the only woman he ever loved; Scorcher Kennedy revisits a family tragedy that forever altered the lives of he and his sister.
Her writing does not disappoint. While these are mysteries that are deeply tangled and perplexing puzzles, they are literary achievements as well.
Ms. French, trained as a professional actor, has worked in theater, film and voiceover. She was born in the United States but has lived in Ireland, Italy, the U.S., and Malawi. She holds duel citizenship in the U.S. and Italy.