Tana French, Mystery Novelist
Tana French is an Irish and American mystery novelist. She grew up in Ireland, the US, Italy and Malawi. After working as an actress in film, theater, and voice work, she became an award-winning mystery author. Her books have won Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Barry and ICVA Clarion awards and have been finalists for LA Times and Strand Magazine awards.
French writes first person novels from the perspective of a primary detective working a dark, unsettling murder case that invariably changes its investigators to their core. She follows the Dublin Murder Squad, with one major case and one detective steering each story. Each of her four novels gets a new narrator, but each narrator was previously introduced as a supporting character in an earlier novel. These books should but do not necessarily have to be read in the order in which they were published; each book stands well on its own, but reading the books in order gives a fuller picture.
In The Woods by Tana French
In The Woods
French’s first novel, In the Woods, was the winner of numerous awards in 2008, including the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. The story begins with the detective report about twelve-year-old Adam Ryan and the day he, along with his two best friends, disappeared. Hours later, Adam was found, terrified and clinging to the trunk of a tree, wearing sneakers soaked in someone else’s blood and completely without any memories of what happened to him.
No trace of his friends was ever found.
Two decades later, Adam, now going by Rob, is a detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad. He has all but left his past behind him and insists that, because he has no memories of the event, he cannot be traumatized by it. But when he and his partner, Cassie Maddox, get called to the scene where the body of a twelve-year-old girl has been found, and when that scene happens to be right where he grew up, Rob’s underlying fear, trauma, and even memories start to bubble under the surface.
In the Woods features two mysteries, and while they may not be directly intertwined, the effect they collectively have on Rob and those around him are undeniable. Through French’s taut, crisp prose and her eerie, deeply unsettling world and character building, Into the Woods builds an effective sense of dread and suspense throughout. This is far from a fun, lighthearted mystery story. This is a creepy, disturbing story with a denouement that will haunt you for days.
The Likeness by Tana French
The Likeness features a new protagonist in Cassie Maddox, Rob’s partner in In the Woods. When the body of a young woman bearing a striking, nearly identical appearance to Cassie, her colleagues are initially afraid she’s somehow been killed. The mystery deepens when they realize that this body had identification bearing the name of one of Cassie’s old aliases from her time undercover, Lexie Madison.
Her former boss and the head of the Undercover Squad, Frank Mackey, comes up with a complicated scheme to pass Cassie off as Lexie Madison, claiming she was grievously injured but survived. She spends the weeks Lexie is “recovering” researching every aspect of the woman’s life from relationships to habits to Cassie goes undercover, living with Lexie’s closest friends, attending her graduate classes, dealing with unfriendly locals who resent Lexie and her mates, and investigating her murder from a completely unique perspective.
Like In the Woods, The Likeness builds an eerie, unsettling atmosphere revolving around intriguing characters and a deeply creepy mystery. The deeper Cassie gets into Lexie’s world, the harder she finds it to extricate herself. Lexie’s friends and lifestyle have a way of sucking people in and keeping them there; she and the four friends she lives with have an almost unhealthy bond. Cassie must work to separate herself from Lexie and find Lexie’s true killer.
Frank Mackey, Cassie’s old boss, becomes the narrator in Faithful Place. Like Cassie and Rob before him, Frank’s life hasn’t always been an easy one. He and his girlfriend, Rosie, had made plans to run away to England together when they were nineteen. Instead, on the night of their fateful plans, Frank heads to Number 16 Faithful Place, their planned meeting spot, only to find a note apologizing for leaving and no sign of Rosie.
Years later, a suitcase filled with Rosie’s things is discovered at 16 Faithful Place, and Frank must come home to a family he’s not seen in decades and demons he’s never fully dealt with. Even more than In the Woods and The Likeness, Faithful Place’s mystery is a deeply and directly personal one, involving the Dublin neighborhood that raised Frank and even his own family. The Mackey family is contentious at best, and the deeper in Frank gets the more he remembers why he wanted out in the first place.
Even when French’s characters make terrible decisions, they come through as real, deeply shaded people you could meet tomorrow. Frank is a much more serious (and for that matter, more experienced) detective than either of his protagonist predecessors, but his working-class background and reckless but effective style still make him something of an outsider in his job. On the other hand, it makes him fit in with the atmosphere, if not the attitude, of his old home nicely—and puts him in a position to solve a personal mystery his bosses would hope he stays far away from.
Broken Harbor by Tana French
Broken Harbor is Tana French’s latest murder mystery, and taking the reins as narrator is Scorcher Kennedy, a friend-turned-rival of Frank Mackey who was introduced in the previous novel. Scorcher, more than any of his predecessors in French’s work, represents the establishment. He is an incredibly effective investigator who will absolutely do things by the book, and do them well. He may not be the most well-liked detective on the force, but he is one of the best.
Scorcher often takes rookie detectives under his wing, trains them for a while, and then moves on to the next rookie. His current protégé is Richie Curran, a likeable, easy-going investigator with a knack for relating to suspects and victims in a way few detectives can match. Scorcher guides Richie through his first big case, and it’s not an easy one. Patrick Spain and his two young children are found murdered in their home, with wife and mother Jenny Spain barely clinging to life.
As with the other narrators, Kennedy’s own history has a connection to his case. When he was a child, Scorcher would spend summers in Broken Harbor, an old sea-town that has since been demolished to build a new suburb—but when hard economic times set in, the development is all but abandoned. The only residents are scattered about, stuck in houses they can’t afford and can’t sell. The Spains, of course, owned one of these houses. Kennedy’s Broken Harbor connection is not a happy one, and while his family life is coming apart at the seams, his dismal case is becoming more and more complicated, and more and more unsettling.
I don’t know how many times I’ve used words like “unsettling” in this article, but that’s only because it’s the best word I can come up with to describe French’s works. Her mysteries are not for the faint of heart. Each of her narrators is damaged goods, even if each of them will passionately deny it. Recurring themes such as Ireland’s harsh economic realities and damage one’s past can do to one’s future are not exactly going to lighten the mood. There are not many happy moments to be found, and even those that do exist are shaded.
And don’t go into reading French’s novels expecting to get everything spelled out for you. The resolution of these cases may leave many readers—not to mention the characters themselves—unsatisfied. The cases these detectives investigate may be their driving forces, but the real meat of these books are the characters themselves. Their development and characterization, along with French’s prose, are the real reason I come back again and again to her novels.
I recommend French’s books whole-heartedly but with an acknowledgement that they are definitely not for everyone.