Tana French has written seven novels, with an eighth due in October. There are important things they have in common. They’re superb. They’re set in Ireland. They pull you way down rabbit holes. They play devious tricks with memory. And they’ll work as haunting diversions from the stasis of now.
A few basic things you should know about French: She’s American. She was born in Vermont and lived in many places, including Italy and Malawi — though her command of Irish accents and personalities has filled French’s Dublin with a large, fictitious population. She is now based in Ireland. The Dublin Murder Squad figures in most but not all of her books.
She’s often written about lost or traumatized children. She read Stephen King’s “It” in her early teens and was fascinated by the ability of children terrorized by the evil clown to block memories of their horror. And she was an actress trained at Trinity College in Dublin before she started writing. In fact, she was at work on an archaeological dig between shows when she saw something that inspired “In the Woods,” her Edgar-winning 2007 debut novel.
Here’s a guide for how to read her. My own preferences sneak in here, favorites first. But you can’t go wrong.
Then go to “Faithful Place,” French’s most forthright and psychologically astute gut-wrencher. It’s also the book of hers that’s least like crime fiction and most like a trickily nuanced family drama. The plot’s the killer: Frank Mackey, who grew up on the dead-end street of the title, planned to run away with his 18-year-old sweetheart, Rosie, but she never kept the date. Years later, her suitcase is found walled inside a building. She meant to go with Frank. Somebody stopped her.
The adult Mackey siblings gather on Faithful Place to glare at Frank — now their worst nemesis, an undercover cop — and exhume the past. French brings enormous tension, humor and atmosphere to these family scenes and to the inevitable fact that Frank is going to close Rosie’s case. He owes it to her, and the reader’s the winner.
As a rookie, French was dazzling but longer-winded. “In the Woods” is often cited as a fan favorite, and it’s full of a lyrical new writer’s joyful self-discovery. It thrillingly describes the professional partnership of Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, the first two members of the Dublin Murder Squad we get to know. (But definitely not the last: French uses the clever, unsettling tactic of carrying over minor characters from earlier books and giving them starring roles later on.)
“In the Woods” makes Rob the sole survivor of a terrible incident that happened when he was 12, in which two other boys disappeared. Then it gives him and Cassie another child’s murder to investigate in the same wooded region two decades later. The strain on Rob’s memory, the eeriness of the situation and the plot juggling all became tools of French’s trade.
French’s most supernatural book is her most recent: “The Witch Elm,” which subjects Toby Hennessy, an arrogant urban dweller, to such a brutal beating that — you guessed it — his memory is impaired, and sends him back to the family’s bucolic roost, where the tendrils practically grow in broad daylight. This is French’s lushest book and it unfolds with deliberate languor, as if it were thick with secrets and misapprehensions. She’s less concerned with plotting than atmospherics, and this is her biggest success in terms of glamorous murk. French takes a break from the Dublin Murder Squad in this stand-alone volume, whose story has something to do with a real crime and is best not examined too closely. Read it more for the ways Toby is manipulated once he can’t trust anyone around him anymore.
You’ll get two in “The Trespasser”: Detective Antoinette Conway, French’s brusque, appealing answer to the more offensive men on the Dublin police force, and the woman whose murder Conway is asked to investigate. The fact that the dead woman had prepared dinner for a guest in her apartment, and that this leads the male detectives to jump right to certain conclusions, just makes Antoinette dig in her heels that much harder. She and the victim turn out to have things in common, and as the only mixed-race member of the force Antoinette already feels embattled. “The Trespasser” starts out as a straight-up crime story, but it becomes much more thanks to the secretiveness that is part of Antoinette’s M.O.
“Broken Harbor” is French’s closest thing to a horror story, one that involves a deadly attack on a family, a fancy real estate development gone bust, more traumatic childhood memories for a main character and (here’s a crazy part) cameras peeping through holes in walls. At first glance it seems far-fetched and shallower than some of her more pragmatic plots. But once the nature of its machinations sinks in, it becomes clear that French is dealing with unusually bizarre pathology. There’s room in this book’s framework for the social commentary about Ireland’s changing landscape and the relentless pull of the past that make her deep digs so unforgettable. And it includes the sickest behavior she’s dreamed up, too.
French certainly did when she wrote her second book, “The Likeness,” which owes a lot to Donna Tartt’s collegiate classic. French’s sophomore outing brought Cassie Maddox back from “In the Woods” into a dicier, less plausible situation. She was recruited to go undercover into a houseful of roommates and impersonate Lexie Madison, who would have been Cassie’s doppelgänger if Lexie weren’t dead. There was also an Agatha Christie element to this, since if Lexie had been killed by a housemate that person should be very surprised to see her. “The Likeness” checks enough traditional mystery boxes to have been a steady hit with French’s fans.
But only because they’re at the center of “The Secret Place,” a book spun off from Frank Mackey’s daughter and the Dublin Murder Squad’s finest. Holly Mackey attends St. Kilda’s, where girls tell one another secrets on the bulletin board of the title. Being her father’s daughter, she spots a murder confession there. And French pulls the nifty trick of bringing an unlikely pair of detectives (endearing but low-ranking Stephen Moran, and Antoinette Conway before her star turn) to St. Kilda’s for just one 450-page day, during which they have to penetrate the girls’ slangy, noxious dissembling (“Um, duh?”) and the affectations of teen culture to figure out who killed a neighboring schoolboy the year before. Neat trick.
“The Searcher.” Out on Oct. 6, it will tell of an American who retires to Ireland to restart his life. After a 25-year career as a cop (what else?) in Chicago, he hopes to enjoy the tranquil pleasures of a rural Irish village. Shall we guess how tranquil the village will turn out to be?
“The Searcher” will be a novelty for French. It’s her first book written in the third person and her first with a non-Irish protagonist. But it sounds true to form in the ways that matter. The place is sure to be full of secrets and memories. The main character will be treated as an outsider. He’ll wind up in the crime-solving business again. And all will be well within Tana French’s world.