All crime novels are social novels. They canâ€™t help it; without a society to define, condemn, and punish it, crime itself wouldnâ€™t exist. Even the detective fiction that seems most untethered from real-world concernsâ€”those British country-house puzzles in which ladies in drop-waisted frocks and gentlemen in evening dress gather in the drawing room to hear a sleuth dissect the murdererâ€™s devious plotâ€”murmurs of class and history: the wealth necessary to staff such a house, the far-off lands where Colonel Mustard earned his insignia. Fictional detectives make handy protagonists because they have license to explore milieus that are off limits to other characters. This is part of the genreâ€™s allure: the windows it opens onto the street life of Victorian London, the sordid fringes of postwar Hollywood, the doldrums of Swedenâ€™s welfare state, and the sooty haunts of working-class Edinburgh. The detective, an intruder, provides the friction.
So itâ€™s not particularly remarkable that Tana Frenchâ€™s Dublin Murder Squad series presents its readers with a portrait of contemporary Ireland wobbling in the aftermath of the Celtic Tigerâ€™s collapse. The portrait is, to be sure, of extraordinary quality. French, an American who has lived in Ireland for twenty-six years, chooses locations where her characters get pinched between the desire to cling to history and the urge to jettison it for brighter horizons: an archeological site soon to be paved over for a motorway, the ramshackle Georgian â€œbig houseâ€ outside a fading rural village, and the tight-knit working-class Dublin enclave known as the Liberties. Most memorable is the setting for her fourth novel, â€œBroken Harborâ€: a â€œghost estate,â€ one of the half-built, barely inhabited suburban developments sold to families eager to climb the â€œproperty ladderâ€ and then abandoned by developers when the housing market crashed. The corpse in â€œThe Trespasser,â€ the most recent book in the series, turns up in a Victorian terraced cottage on a nondescript Dublin street, a home furnished in the kind of canned, impersonal good taste that would give Detective Antoinette Conway the creeps if she permitted herself such whimsies. She gazes down at the victim, Aislinn Murray, whose straightened blond hair and fake tan are the seriesâ€™ badges of todayâ€™s generic young Irish womanhood, and thinks to herself, â€œShe looks like Dead Barbie.â€
Yet, however convincing and well observed Frenchâ€™s Ireland feels, it isnâ€™t the kernel of her workâ€™s appeal, the thing that makes the Dublin Murder Squad series the object of an intense, even cultic fascination. Frenchâ€™s readers like to go online and rank the books (six so far, counting â€œThe Trespasserâ€) in order of preference, and while thereâ€™s no consensus, itâ€™s taken for granted that anybody whoâ€™s read one will very shortly have read them all. The early copy of â€œThe Trespasserâ€ that I presented as a hostess gift this summer was greeted with ecstasy. The recipient spent much of the weekend shuffling around in a robe with the book clutched to her chest and a distracted expression on her face. Most crime fiction is diverting; Frenchâ€™s is consuming. A bit of the spell it casts can be attributed to the genreâ€™s usual devicesâ€”the tempting conundrum, the red herrings, the slices of low and high lifeâ€”but French is also hunting bigger game. In her books, the search for the killer becomes entangled with a search for self. In most crime fiction, the central mystery is: Who is the murderer? In Frenchâ€™s novels, itâ€™s: Who is the detective?
The Dublin Murder Squad books are a mystery series in name only; in multiple respects, the series transgresses the well-established conventions of the genre, the first of which is a reliable continuity in tone and dramatis personae. The typical detective series offers its readers soothing familiarity spiced by the mild novelty of each installmentâ€™s crime. The quirks and philosophy of the sleuthâ€”Sherlock Holmesâ€™s rationalistic brio, Hercule Poirotâ€™s little gray cells, the glum Nordic professionalism of Kurt Wallanderâ€”become beloved talismans to his fans. By contrast, each novel in Frenchâ€™s series is narrated by a different detective, someone who appears as a supporting character in an earlier book. Several of these narrators quit the squad entirely by the end of their novel, and oneâ€”Frank Mackey, the narrator of â€œFaithful Placeâ€â€”was never on the Murder Squad to begin with. (Mackey runs Undercover.) The view that the narrator of the previous novel has of another detective is often revealed to be significantly skewed when that detective gets to tell his or her own story.
The mystery genre is a minuet between disruption and order. The murder sets the story in motion by introducing instability: not just the moral wrong of homicide, a horror that remains fairly notional in most crime fiction, but the violation posed by the mystery itself. Far more unbearable than the murder is the fact that we donâ€™t know who did it. To solve this, the detective must strip away a host of concealments, opening up drawers and prying off lids. Small objects are made to speak volumes, and the culprit is only the last of the secrets to be exposed. At the end of the novel, justice is (usually) served, but, even more satisfying, the truth is made visible and incontrovertible.
Frenchâ€™s first novel, â€œIn the Woods,â€ published in 2007, rejected this formula. It opens with a rhapsody, a dappled evocation of summer as experienced by three quicksilver twelve-year-olds given the run of an ancient patch of forest near the small town of Knocknaree:
These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the microlandscapes of their own grazed knees; put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong.Â .Â .Â .
They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear. Down the faint lost paths you would never find alone, skidding round the tumbled stone walls, they stream calls and shoelaces behind them like comet-trails. And who is it waiting on the riverbank with his hands in the willow branches, whose laughter tumbles swaying from a branch high above, whose is the face in the undergrowth in the corner of your eye, built of light and leaf-shadow, there and gone in a blink?
Three kids go into the woodsâ€”two boys and a girlâ€”but only one comes out, scraped and bruised, with his clothes ripped and his shoes filled with blood. He has no memory of what happened to him or his friends, who are never seen again. He grows up, begins going by his middle name, and becomes a policeman, Rob Ryan, the murder detective who narrates â€œIn the Woods.â€ He and his partner, Cassie Maddox, enjoy a seamless, wisecracking, joyful rapport, much like the fellowship he once shared with his vanished chums. Then the pair get called in to investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl whose body is found at an archeological excavation in the very woods where Robâ€™s friends disappeared.
Fair warning: the girlâ€™s killer will be revealed, but what happened to Rob and his friends in the woods will not. Depending on your taste, this is either an unforgivable lapse on Frenchâ€™s part or a thrilling defiance of the mystery genreâ€™s complacent faith in the knowability of the world. Rob regains, briefly, flashes of childhood memory leading up to the fateful day, and they are as sweet, golden, and heady as mead. As with many of Frenchâ€™s narrators, Rob clings to an idyll, an interlude of past perfection to which he longs, hopelessly, to return. His two lost friends remain suspended within that moment, and his deepest secret is that he envies them. â€œSometimes I think of the ancient gods who demanded that their sacrifices be fearless and without blemish,â€ he muses, â€œand I wonder whether, whoever or whatever took Peter and Jamie away, it decided I wasnâ€™t good enough.â€
The Knocknaree case wrecks Robâ€™s life, his career, his friendship with Cassie. She takes over the narration of the second Dublin Murder Squad novel, â€œThe Likeness,â€ in a scenario that is flagrantly incredible. A dead girl, physically identical to Cassie in every respect, is found in a ruined cottage in County Wicklow. She carries the I.D. of Lexie Madison, a false identity created by Cassie and Frank Mackey back when Cassie worked for him. Frank persuades her to go back undercover, to masquerade as Lexie, with the supposed goal of finding the killer. He champions this scheme for the sheer audacity of it. But Cassieâ€™s motives are murkier. An orphan and only child, she concocted Lexie out of scraps of a wished-for childhood, a second self who now haunts her like a ghost.
In pursuit of this phantasm, Cassie moves into the country house where the victim lived with four fellow grad students from Trinity College, an ensemble whose close bonds and genteel, antiquated preoccupations (they read Dante aloud to each other in the evenings) pay homage to Donna Tarttâ€™s â€œThe Secret History.â€ The students, too, cleave to an impossible paradise: to live together, more or less platonically and without forming significant outside relationships, for the rest of their lives. Cassie falls in love with this quixotic union, and with the beautiful old house that shelters it, even as she betrays them all.
Although social issues arenâ€™t excluded from Frenchâ€™s first two novelsâ€”both involve schemes to raze a rare old property in order to build a profitable new oneâ€”they cluster at the periphery of a crisis with deeper roots. The images and language are archetypal, the stuff of ballads (â€œAnd who is it waiting on the riverbankÂ .Â .Â .â€) and fairy tales (Cassie imagines sewing herself and Lexie â€œtogether at the edges with my own hands,â€ like Wendy reattaching Peter Panâ€™s shadow). This is the terrain of the gothic, a fictional mode that, at its best (â€œJane Eyre,â€ the novels and stories of Shirley Jackson), scrutinizes the boundary between the inner self and the outer world and finds it permeable. Identity is its abiding theme, and the house, a proxy for the psyche, is its organizing motif. In â€œBroken Harbor,â€ Frenchâ€™s eeriest novel, a family of four is assaulted in a shoddily constructed suburban three-bedroom; only the mother is left alive, and she just barely. At first, Detective Mick (Scorcher) Kennedy, a rule-loving martinet, and his rookie partner suspect the dead husband, a financial-industry recruiter who was laid off in the economic bust, unable to find new work, and held captive by an underwater mortgage. But then the detectives discover video cameras trained on numerous holes in the houseâ€™s walls, and a leg trap in the attic big enough to take down a puma. And then, in one of the many empty houses nearby, they find a hideout like a sniperâ€™s perch, affording a perfect view into the familyâ€™s kitchen. Someone outside was peering into the house while someone inside was trying to look even deeper, into the walls themselves.
Gothics can be absorbing in a different way from whodunits, their inward gaze enthralling but claustrophobic. This might have become Frenchâ€™s formula, a moody police procedural perfumed by the uncanny and narrated by a psychologically unstable sleuth. But her third novel, â€œFaithful Place,â€ departed decisively from that mood. Narrated by Frank Mackey, the book takes its title from the working-class cul-de-sac where Frank grew up. Thereâ€™s nothing spooky in â€œFaithful Place.â€ Itâ€™s a ceaseless, riotous cascade of Irish yammering, from the operatic scoldings of Frankâ€™s ma to the chatter of his four siblings as they squeeze around a table in the corner pub. Instead of rural and isolated, Faithful Place is urban and crowded, and Frank, a genuine self-made man, seems anything but fragile. He has left his past behind and made a new life as a police detective with a middle-class family. He hasnâ€™t lost the common touch, by any meansâ€”when he notes a couple of junkies eying him for a smash-and-grab, all he has to do to scare them off is smileâ€”but he repudiates the old neighborhood and stays in contact only with his kid sister Jackie.
Frank believes that his first love, Rosie, a girl whom he arranged to run off to England with but who never showed, bailed on him because of his family. The night they were supposed to elope, Frankâ€™s drunken, violent da and his battle-axe ma (â€œyour classic Dublin mammy: five foot nothing of curler-haired, barrel-shaped donâ€™t-mess-with-this, fueled by an endless supply of disapprovalâ€) pitched a ghastly scene right out in the street. Twenty-odd years later, a couple of laborers find Rosieâ€™s suitcase hidden in an abandoned house not far from where the young lovers were to meet. Further investigation unearths her body in the basement, and Frank reels:
All my signposts had gone up in one blinding, dizzying explosion: my second chances, my revenge, my nice thick anti-family Maginot line. Rosie Daly dumping my sorry ass had been my landmark, huge and solid as a mountain. Now it was flickering like a mirage and the landscape kept shifting around it, turning itself inside out and backwards; none of the scenery looked familiar anymore.
Crime writers who win the approval of the literary world tend to earn it with their style. Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard fashioned quintessential American voicesâ€”tough and melancholy, lean and slangyâ€”and whatever you read by either one of them is instantly recognizable. In Frenchâ€™s novels, however, character trumps all. Each book has a distinct voice, from Rob Ryanâ€™s cultured lyricism to the blunt, meticulous fed-upness of Antoinette Conway: â€œThe case comes in, or anyway it comes in to us, on a frozen dawn in the kind of closed-down January that makes you think the sunâ€™s never going to drag itself back above the horizon.â€
Antoinette first appears in Frenchâ€™s fifth and least successful novel, â€œThe Secret Place,â€ where she partners with the narrator, Stephen Moran, to investigate the murder of a teen-age boy on the grounds of a posh Catholic girlsâ€™ school. This time around, the paradise of perfect fellowship belongs to a foursome of fifteen-year-old girls who attain an unusual powerâ€”social and paranormalâ€”by swearing off boys until they graduate. Stephen, naturally, has no access to or investment in this circle, so chapters of his first-person narration alternate with third-person present-tense chapters that are set, confusingly, a year or so before the investigation. The novelâ€™s emotional center is diffused, and it loses the tense, marvellous effect of Frenchâ€™s other books, in which the scrim of a faltering narrator makes it impossible to ascertain whether the supernatural elements are real or merely a manifestation of the detectiveâ€™s psychic distress. The girlsâ€™ witchy exploits are a thin pop-culture borrowing, and teen-agers are so protean to begin with that their identity crises lack the power to unnerve.
â€œThe Trespasserâ€ returns to the seriesâ€™ first-person form, cinching the novel tightly to Antoinetteâ€™s well-armored view of the proceedings and her panic as that perspective comes undone. A friend recently remarked that Frenchâ€™s novels always seem to be about real estate, which is not surprising in Ireland, where identity is often linked to the land. â€œThe Trespasserâ€ moves away from this metaphor, an indication that French has figured out how to expand the seriesâ€™ scope without abandoning the intensity of its focus. The only woman on the Murder Squad, and mixed-race as well, Antoinette has found it necessary to plow a path for herself through an unwelcoming world. â€œRound Conwayâ€™s patch of rough and mine,â€ Stephen observes, â€œsomeone disses you, you punch hard and fast and straight to the face, before they see weakness and sink their teeth into it.â€ While one understands how this instinct has served her, it doesnâ€™t adapt well to a professional career. Antoinette often displays a hair-trigger defensiveness that only the easygoing and persistent Stephen can penetrate.
As with â€œFaithful Place,â€ there isnâ€™t a whiff of the otherworldly in â€œThe Trespasserâ€; a refusal to truck with such rubbish is one of the few qualities that Antoinette Conway shares with Frank Mackey, along with a jumbo working-class chip on her shoulder. The murder of Aislinn Murray dredges up some issues; both women were abandoned by their fathers. Antoinette refuses to be troubled by the similarities. Far more perturbing is the vague, elusive memory she has of once turning away from Aislinnâ€™s pleas, way back when Antoinette was still in uniform. Now the young woman lies in her own sitting room with her head bashed in, not far from a table set for a romantic dinner. Antoinette canâ€™t remember what Aislinn asked of her, only that she refused, thinking, â€œPathetic.â€
More than any other novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, â€œThe Trespasserâ€ concerns the squad itself, the pinnacle of the force and the unit (along with Undercover) to which all Dublin police aspire. A crime writerâ€™s own background often shapes how he or she conceives of the art of detection. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor, made Sherlock Holmes a scientific diagnostician. French studied drama at Trinity College and worked in the theatre for ten years. Her detectives are all performers, and the Murder Squad detectives have nabbed the lead roles. (Thereâ€™s also much of the fierce, fleeting camaraderie of the troupe in Frenchâ€™s fascination with the tight, almost telepathic bonds between partners, siblings, and the best of friends.) They pay close attention to how they dress, which cars they drive to the scene, and exactly how they walk once they get out of them. Their interrogations are elaborately staged to manipulate their witnesses and suspects. â€œOur relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked,â€ Rob Ryan explains, â€œrefracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.â€ The same could be said of actors and novelists.
Antoinette knows how to fight, and Stephen knows how to mollify; together they form an alliance that provides one of the few pleasures Antoinette takes in the job she once passionately coveted. The rest of the squad, she thinks, want to shut her out and watch her fail: â€œThey went shoulder to shoulder and started pushing me out of the pack.â€ This is Antoinetteâ€™s dilemma: she sees enemies and detractors everywhere, and sheâ€™s not always wrong. She is the target of bias in at least some quarters, and someone in the department seems to be steering the Aislinn Murray investigation in a particular direction. But why? Antoinette and Stephen get saddled with a third detective, a fatuous, patronizing showboater whom French deploys to delicious comic effect. Toward the end of the investigation, Antoinette has convinced herself that this man is faking the signs of a conspiracy to provoke her into a career-ending error. She even begins to suspect Stephen of being in on the plot. Itâ€™s as if she had contracted a psychological autoimmune disorder: the very qualities that helped her muscle her way into this dream jobâ€”her tenacity and bravado, her denial of both her own vulnerability and her longing for intimacyâ€”have begun to eat away at her. â€œSomeone wants me to make a mistake,â€ she thinks. â€œAnd Iâ€™m a couple hundred miles out to sea with all my systems going haywire.â€
Antoinette Conway, Rob Ryan, Cassie Maddox, and each of Frenchâ€™s other detectives not only narrate a case but navigate one of those rare interludes when a human beingâ€™s foundations shift permanently, for better or worse. Each of them is remade by the events the book relates. As much as readers may come to love a series detective (few characters have ever been more beloved than Sherlock Holmes), the genre mostly doesnâ€™t give us this. The creator of a series detective has two options: supply the sleuth with one forgettable case after another while the character remains essentially unchanged or, in the interest of keeping the stakes high, turn the detectiveâ€™s life into soap opera, a preposterous string of murdered wives, kidnapped children, and showdowns with diabolical serial killers. Those detectives investigate crimes, but Frenchâ€™s pursue mysteries, the kind that can never be completely solved, although we all spend a lifeâ€™s worth of days in the trying.Â â™¦