I have a few favorite mystery writers, and Tana French is one of them. Her first book, Into the Woods, is the beginning of a series with different Dublin Murder Squad homicide detectives as the main characters. The series allows for repeat appearances of detectives as minor characters in subsequent books—a clever device for fleshing out backstories and building strong characters. After five novels in the series, French has written two stand-alone mysteries that still take place in the Dublin area, still involve homicide investigations, but don’t have the Dublin Murder Squad members as characters.
I just finished the first of these stand-alone novels, The Witch Elm, and it’s still haunting my thoughts. Recently, on a walk with my husband around a nearby lake, I recounted the whole plot so that I could “think out loud” about my reaction to the novel. I hadn’t decided whether I like the main character and narrator, Toby, which is unusual in my reading experience.
My ambiguous reception of Toby fits well with the plan of the novel, however. Early in the book, Toby is violently attacked at home by burglars and left for dead. When he awakens in the hospital, he realizes that he’s got large gaps in his memory. He recognizes all the people in his life, but he can’t remember chunks of events. He knows his best buddies, but he can’t remember the details of his recent evening at the pub with them. He knows his parents and cousins, and he can remember many details about his relationships with them, but he can’t remember some details about past times he spent with them. These memory gaps lead him to wonder what he did and how he felt during key events in their shared past, specifically when he and his cousins were teenagers together and spent summers with their bachelor uncle Hugo at the family home.
In the same way that Toby isn’t sure whether he was supportive and kind when his cousins were facing bullying and intimidation, or whether he was a jerk and joined in on the bad behavior of some of his friends, the reader is left to wonder whether Toby is truly a good guy or only wishing that he were. His memories of their teen years, or the lack thereof, become crucial when a body is found in an ancient witch elm tree located in the family home’s large back garden.
Throughout the novel, I found myself wondering if a character was a victim or a perpetrator, whether I was considering Toby’s friends, his uncle Hugo, or his cousins, Susanna and Leon. I realized I cared about the characters but was concerned about their culpability. French weaves a story that never delivers a definitive answer about the people who populate the story, although the murder mystery itself is clearly revealed. I’m still not sure whether I like Toby’s character, but then, by the end of the book, I wasn’t sure Toby liked himself. One reason I enjoy French’s mysteries so much is the author’s ability to deal with the truth and logic of a murder investigation, following the evidence to its inevitable end, while also unpacking the complexity of Truth about human nature and the ways we see ourselves and others. These enduring questions that linger long after I’ve read the last page are what keep me eager to read any book written by Tana French.