Few writers enjoy such a celebrated debut as Tana French. Her runaway bestseller In the Woods swept the literary establishment, earning rave reviews from high-profile publications like The New Yorker and Publishers Weekly. The sophomore curse didn’t strike her either. Starz recently adapted her popular follow-up The Likeness into a glossy TV series. In 2018, French’s writing idol Steven King lavished praise on her most recent novel The Witch Elm. In sum, French is called “The Queen of Irish Crime Fiction” for a reason—but what exactly separates her from her contemporaries?
French’s stories give us nuanced, helpful ways to re-envision our idea of criminality by exploring the roots of violence. In French’s oeuvre, crimes don’t only come from individual perversion or psychological derangement, but the way that a vulnerable person fits into their broader society. As critic Laura Miller writes, “all crime novels are social novels”—but few explore their societies as unblinkingly and with as much complexity as French’s works.
Broken Harbour: The Pride
Warning: This review contains major spoilers for all of French’s novels, but especially Broken Harbour.
French sets her novels in post-recession Dublin, a city traumatized by its ravaged economy. My favorite of her works, Broken Harbour, takes place at a halted housing development. When the picture-perfect Spain family is obliterated by a brutal act of violence—the wife Jenny survives by sheer chance—the resulting investigation acts as an object lesson in French’s manifesto about the way we think about crime.
The initial suspect is the wife’s childhood friend turned creepy stalker, Conor. Did the dissolution of their bond lead him to lose it and wipe out Jenny’s family in a fit of rage? In another novel, this would make for a fine ending. But in French’s Dublin, this is the comforting solution. In reality, things are much more complicated and the blame is much harder to pinpoint.
It turns out that the Spains had emptied their savings to enter the housing market. They bought a home in “Brianstown” (a promising seaside development), only for the recession to hit. With the Irish economy in tatters, the development grinds to a halt, and the Spains are left in the dust. What should have been their nest egg becomes worthless overnight. They can’t afford to sell, so they stay in the ghost town, isolated from their friends and family. Soon, bad turns to worse.
Broken Harbour: The Fall
When the father Pat loses his job, the family expects that he’ll find another position—they’re wrong. By the time Jenny and Pat realize that they need to cut back on their spending, they’re already massively in debt. Even worse, Pat can’t cope with his redundancy and begins obsessing over an animal in the house’s rafters. Unfortunately for him, he’s the only one who can hear the supposed animal.
Jenny spends 100 harrowing days trying to cope with her increasingly deranged husband and providing stability for her two children. But after enough time passes and nothing improves, Jenny snaps. She kills her children and her husband, then attempts to kill herself.
The novel’s denouement sees a career cop, our narrator Scorcher Kennedy, grapple with the ambiguous case. Kennedy’s partner Richie wants to pin the murder on the dead husband, allowing Jenny to walk free and finish what she started, i.e., end her own life. For Richie, forcing Jenny to rot in a jail cell may be legal, but it’s not just. Kennedy is torn, but ultimately disagrees. He hatches a plan with Jenny’s sister to have Jenny plead guilty then recover in a psychiatric hospital. In the book’s final pages, readers must consider the case for themselves. French gives us no clear idea about whether justice has truly been served.
In Broken Harbour, our narrator Scorcher Kennedy primes the reader’s interpretation of events. Scorcher vehemently believes that crime doesn’t just happen to people; in his words, “99 times out of 100, it doesn’t break into people’s lives. It gets there because they open the door and invite it in.” If anyone believes that someone can pull up their bootstraps, make good choices, and stay safe and successful, it’s Scorcher. But by the end of the novel, the bloody triple-murder has rocked Scorcher’s earlier belief system to the core.
The Spains did everything right. The high school sweethearts walked down the aisle, got jobs, and responsibly invested in real estate, moving to a seaside town to raise their nuclear family’s requisite two kids. And then, based on circumstances entirely beyond the couple’s control, everything falls apart. Did the Spain family invite crime in? To what extent does any victim fulfill Kennedy’s rigid philosophy?
Self and Society
While Broken Harbour brings these issues to the fore, the shared culpability between an individual and their social circumstances structure all of French’s novels. In In the Woods, a horrific childhood trauma colors everything in detective Rob Ryan’s life, including his understanding of the murder case he’s investigating. Faithful Place begins with two teenagers who dream of escaping domestic violence and abject poverty. Their drive for freedom falls apart when it provokes another character to commit murder out of jealousy and resentment. After all, if they go free, he gets left behind in the slum.
In The Likeness (like Broken Harbour, another novel about land and property), a group of misfits try to opt out of normative society, with awful consequences. It begs the question, if regular society had more space for these wounded twenty-somethings, would their lives have turned out differently? The Trespasser explores cops trying to pin a brutal crime on an innocent man—all so they can protect one of their own. Apparently, being a detective means that you get one murder for free. And in The Witch Elm, French dissects the way that privilege structures all our lives with a devastating fable. After the main character’s fall from grace, he comes to know how the other half lives—and it is not pretty.
Detective Novels and Social Criticism
French’s nuanced exploration of violence separates her from the kind of exploitative literature that takes pleasure in the pain of a character—or in the case of true crime, a real person. Bottom-of-the-barrel true crime, in my opinion, limits itself to the murderer and their twisted perversions. The victim is around only to die, so that the writer can recount their grisly death with horrific detail.
French moves beyond the formula of “individual murderer + anonymous victim = thriller” by integrating broader social trends and a systemic angle. Her work implicitly rebuffs the usual idea of crime as isolated, aberrant, and fundamentally abnormal. While French never suggests that crime should become normalized, her novels point out that when viewed overall, crime has distinct patterns—and it should be considered in more complexity than “the murderer was a monster.”
Instead of laying blame firmly at the perpetrator’s feet, French encourages readers to think about the social circumstances that drove someone to criminality and to consider which factors enable some culprits to walk free while other people, not always guilty, rot in jail cells.
How Tana French Inhabits the Minds of Her Detectives – An Interview
If you want a tip on a great thriller, you could do a lot worse than to follow the advice of Stephen King. In a New York Times review, he raved about a book called “The Witch Elm,” the most recent mystery novel by the writer Tana French. French has been called the queen of Irish crime fiction, although she is originally American, and she’s often called a mystery writer for people who don’t read mysteries. Maybe that sounds like faint praise, but make no mistake: fans of French are almost crazily devoted to her books.
alexandra schwartz: Tana, I need to begin with a confession. I have to ration your books because, once I start one, I am totally lost to the world. If I have anything else going on at that moment in my life, I am just not going to be able to do it.
tana french: I like being a bad influence.
You didn’t start writing until you were in your thirties, which might seem to some readers relatively late. Before that you were an actor, and I was wondering how that change came about.
To be honest, it was sort of always in the cards. I used to write when I was a kid, when I was a teen-ager: we’re talking short stories, and your basic, really terrible teen-age poetry. But the acting sort of took over. I was doing theatre and, unless you’re Judi Dench or somebody, the gigs don’t line up right, so there’s always a gap in between, and in one gap I did a few weeks on an archeological dig. There was a wood not far from the dig, and I was looking at it and thinking, That would be a great place for kids to play, and then I thought, What if three kids ran in there and only one came out, and he had no memory of what had happened to the other two? And then, What if he became a detective and a case drew him back to that wood? I really want to know what would happen with that story. I didn’t think I could write a whole book; I’d never tried before, but I figured I could probably write maybe a scene and then another scene, and then I had a whole chapter. Kind of the moment when I found myself turning down acting work, I think that was when I realized that I was really, really serious about this book, and from there on it sort of all followed, and that book was “In the Woods,” which was published in 2007.
To write a thriller, or a crime novel, or a mystery—and I wonder, actually, if there’s a term that you prefer for your own books—takes a lot of intricate plotting. You have to lead your reader on a bunch of twists and turns. How did you manage to figure out plotting for that first book?
Plotting is not my strong point. I’m pretty at home with characterization, because acting is really good training for that, and I’m at home with the actual sentence-to-sentence writing. Structure is the part that I have put a lot of work into getting right. It’s not a part that comes naturally to me, but also I’m lucky: my husband is an actor, as well, and he directs films, and he has a demon eye for structure, right? Because he’s watched every old film in the universe, and so he’s very good on structure, so he reads for me, and he’ll go, O.K., hang on a second, that is not fitting together structurally, that subplot has got lost, or you’re not moving that scene forward enough. But I think, in some ways, mystery was actually a very good way to learn that, because it’s got such a built-in arc. You know A kills B, and then C finds out whodunnit. So that keeps you on track, to some extent. I think if I’d been writing something like straight literary fiction it would have been much easier to just keep on writing forever and never stop, whereas at least mystery has a clean arc that you have to stick to.
The partner dynamic is, to me, such a satisfying part of reading your books, that kind of back-and-forth that goes on between partners, and Rob and Cassie, in “In the Woods,” embody it to a T. Could you could read a passage where Rob describes feeling this way?
The girls I dream of are the gentle ones, wistful by high windows or singing sweet old songs at a piano, long hair drifting, tender as apple blossom. But a girl who goes into battle beside you and keeps your back s a different thing, a thing to make you shiver. Think of the first time you slept with someone, or the first time you fell in love: that blinding explosion that left you crackling to the fingertips with electricity, initiated and transformed. I tell you that was nothing, nothing at all, beside the power of putting your lives, simply and daily, into each other’s hands.
How did you learn the vernacular of detective work in order to write these books?
Well, I’m lucky. I know a retired detective who is a really lovely guy, and he’s also a serious talker. So all you have to do is press play, buy him a nice cup of coffee, say, “Talk to me,” and he’ll just keep talking until the coffee runs out. He has been so generous with his time, and that’s where I’m getting the flavor of these little things—the dynamics, to an extent, the partner relationship. That’s something that’s always fascinated me, which is going to sound weird for a writer who works alone, but I love working with people.
One of the things I miss most from acting is the teamwork of it: when you’re doing a scene with somebody and it’s a difficult scene, and it’s one that you know can be amazing if you get it right, and you’re working with somebody where you’re really attuned to each other, and you can throw anything at them and know they’ll bounce it back to you with something more added. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s one of the real joys of acting. And I was thinking about detectives and going, What would it be like to have that relationship where you were so tuned in to each other that you’re working practically as one, and have it be life and death and truth and justice on the line? When it works, [it’s] an incredible thing.
Your books are set in Dublin, and you are not originally from Dublin. When did you come to Dublin? What was it about the city that fascinated you, that drew you in?
Yeah, I’m an international brat. I think the official term is “third-culture kid,” isn’t it? I grew up moving around: my parents are from several continents between them, and when I went to college it just seemed like the natural place to go. It was the place I knew best. This seems like the natural place to be. I’m here since 1990.
So you were here—or there, rather—during the Celtic Tiger, which is something that comes through in all of your books, the period of astonishing growth that transformed Ireland from a relatively poor country into a rich one, and then came crashing down with the international crash in 2008. What was that like to live through?
That was very strange to live through, in particular from the point of view of a broke actor who wasn’t actually participating in the Celtic Tiger in any way. We were constantly being told by the government, by the media, by everyone around us during the Celtic Tiger that what was happening was wonderful. But, from our perspective, this just meant I have no chance of ever buying a house, and my rent is skyrocketing. And then, when it all came crashing down, the people who suffered the most psychologically weren’t the people like me, who had been outside it anyway. I couldn’t have afforded a shed in the middle of nowhere during the Celtic Tiger, but the people who were hurt worst were the people who had believed in this narrative implicitly and thrown themselves into it, who had bought those apartments off the plans, bought the houses built on flood plains, because they believed that in five years you’ll be able to sell it for triple the price to another sucker, and you’ll all live happily ever after. I think that, for those of us who hadn’t been playing by the rules anyway, it was less devastating, but we still saw that devastation. And my generation is the one that got kicked particularly hard. So, yeah, it’s seeped through, into the books.
You’re basically describing a victimization narrative where, en masse, people are given a bait-and-switch. They’re led to believe one thing, and it turns out that the truth is something very different, and that’s something that comes back in such a fascinating and rich way in novel after novel of yours. I think we should say, especially for people who haven’t read these books, that the detectives are all pretty damaged people. They are not the most reliable narrators, even when they believe themselves to be. Often there are memory issues, which you use to manipulate the information around them: they either remember things that didn’t happen or have memory problems. Why are you drawn to that kind of detective? Many mystery writers like to create a sort of figure of authority who is going through a twisted, shadowy world, but is ultimately going to bring truth to light. Even when the truth comes to light in your books, it may not be the whole truth, and it may not matter, for practical purposes, whether the truth is out at all.
Yeah, it doesn’t always reimpose order. I am fascinated by unreliable narrators, because I think that one of the core points of the arts is to give us a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else, to see the world for a little while through someone else’s eyes, and to realize that other people have viewpoints that are completely different from our own, and that those are just as real and intense and vivid and valid. And—this is going to sound odd—but I think an unreliable narrator does that best, because we are all unreliable writers of our own lives. We all reshape our own narratives to make them fit what we want to believe or what we need or just what interests us most. Like, if you’ve got siblings, and the two of you tell a story about some argument that happened in your childhood. You’re gonna get two completely different versions of that argument, because both of you have shaped the narrative to fit what suits your thoughts best. If you’re reading an unreliable narrator, that’s what brings you closest to the person, because you’re not seeing their experience objectively. You’re seeing it the way they see it, which is through their thoughts, through their biases, through their needs and their fears and their desires. So I think an unreliable narrator is the one you know most intimately, ironically, and the one who comes closest to fulfilling what the arts are really for.
It’s funny, what you say about siblings. I’m an only child, so I’m sitting here thinking, Yeah, yeah, but I know what really happened in this story, and it occurs to me that Toby, the narrator of “The Witch Elm,” is also an only child, and definitely has a touch of that same narrative arrogance. How did you decide that? “The Witch Elm” is the only one of your books thus far not to be narrated by a detective, or not to take place from that point of view. How did you decide to flip that framework?
Well, for one thing, I wanted to move away from the Double Murder Squad a bit because I don’t ever want to get caught in the trap of writing the same book over and over. I think, if you’re writing in a specific procedural subgenre where it is A kills B, and the detective finds out through investigation whodunnit, it’s quite easy to fall into that trap. So I wanted to take a step back. I’d looked at the process of investigation from a detective’s viewpoint six times, and I kept thinking about the other viewpoints involved in that same investigation. You’ve got witnesses, you’ve got victims, you’ve got suspects, you’ve got perpetrators, and all of them have to see that investigation entirely differently. But, for all those other people, it’s a totally different thing. It’s this force that just barrels into your life, turns everything upside down. You have no idea where you stand: Are you a witness? Are you a suspect? What are you? You have no idea what the detectives are doing. You do you have no idea where it’s going to go, how much destruction it’s going to cause, where it’s going to stop. I thought all of those viewpoints deserved a look, as well, deserved a voice, too, and at different points in the book Toby’s all of those. He’s victim, witness, suspect, perpetrator—and, to an extent, detective, as well—so he kind of covers all the bases. I wanted to try out those different viewpoints.
This novel is quite capacious, and a lot of critics have noticed this. To me, that’s a good thing, by the way.
There’s a lot of it, I know. [Laughs.]
You do this in a lot of your books—in all of your books. But in this one in particular there’s a lot of time spent with your character where nothing seems to be happening from the perspective of figuring out who did the crime, or even what what the crime is. What kind of purpose does that serve for you? Another way to put it is, you’re often referred to as a literary crime writer, which is—I don’t know how you take that term, if it’s flattering or condescending or what, but I think people mean the writing is beautiful, that there’s this kind of exquisite characterization. What do you make of that “literary” side of things?
It’s hard, because I think the boundaries in fiction are breaking down all the time, which is a great thing. They bleed over from what used to be considered, This is what literary fiction should be like. This is what crime fiction to be should be like. More and more, there’s a lot of crossover. For me, I don’t know what I’m writing. I’m just writing this book, and the the core story arc is not the murder and the solution. The core story arc is Toby. Toby is going from this golden boy and his happy life to somebody who’s had that shattered, and what he does about it. How will he put the pieces back together? Will he be able to? Where will this crisis take him?
That’s the story line. It’s going to be frustrating for some people because, if you’re coming to the book expecting a straight-up crime novel that abides by the genre conventions in which, yeah, the core of the book is the murder investigation, then you are going to be going, about a hundred pages in, Where’s my murder? Where’s this investigation? So I can see where, if there’s a clash between the expectations and the actual book, that always gets frustrating. But I like the fact that those expectations are no longer the be-all and end-all. For more and more crime writers, you don’t have to stick to the conventions. You can use them as a starting point rather than a finishing point.
There are two mysteries in “In the Woods.” There’s the mystery of what happened to Rob when he was a child: he was one of those three children you originally imagined who go into the woods, and only one comes out. That one is him, and he has no memory of what happened. And then there’s the actual murder that he’s trying to solve, which takes place in a similar wood. I won’t say which, of course, but we find out the answer to one of those mysteries and not both. Do you know what happened in the other mystery? Is that something in your mind, or are you just leaving it open for yourself, as well?
No. I know, more or less. I don’t know every specific, but I know in general what happened. But there was no way, with integrity, to work it into the book, so I kind of went, O.K., there are going to be some readers who aren’t happy, and fair enough. I can see why, but I’m going to have to stick with the one that makes it as good a book as possible, keep my fingers crossed that there are enough people who think like me.