Category Archives: French Tana

The Trespasser: Tana French

“But I know if we actually catch what we’re hunting, it’s probably gonna rip our faces off.”

In Tana French’s crime novel, The Trespasser, Dublin Murder Squad detectives, Antoinette Conway and her partner Steve Moran investigate what initially seems to be a fairly standard “slam-dunk” domestic violence case involving a young, attractive blonde named Aislinn Murray who is found dead in her tiny home. She had a date that night with a bookshop owner named Rory Fallon, a man she’d met just a few weeks before. Fallon claims that he was invited to Aislinn’s home for the very first time for dinner but that Aislinn did not answer the door. There’s something off about Fallon’s statement, and with Conway and Moran pressured by a senior detective, the slick, popular Breslin and Superintendent O’Kelly, to wind this case up, it seems all too easy to arrest Fallon, but from the start, when Conway and Moran are handed the case at the end of their shift, there are some aspects of the murder that don’t quite feel right.

the-trespasser

Aislinn, at first, looks like a “dead Barbie” to the hardened Conway. She fits the ideal of beauty, paper thin, blonde and dressed in designer clothes. Yet according to her best friend, Lucy, who argues that they weren’t that close, Aislinn had no real friends, had just recently started coming out of her shell, and may have been seeing a married man. There’s something strange about the whole case; Aislinn’s life seems like a cookie cutter version of the brainless blonde, yet as Conway digs deeper, she remembers where she saw Aislinn before, and back then, Aislinn was a completely different person…

Aislinn’s doing it again: getting blurrier with everything I find out about her.

The novel portrays Conway, who’s ostracized from the rest of the squad and Moran, her easy-going partner working on a “never-ending run of domestics,” wanting a case that will require some skill, and not the obvious solve cases they’ve been working lately.  Part of the reason for this may reside in the building hostility towards Conway in the squad room. Conway is on the brink of making a career move when the Aislinn Murray case comes her way. Moran is much more interested in understanding the victim than Conway, and the reason for that resides in Conway’s steely shell .

The plot focuses on the hard grind of designating the minutiae of small tasks, the conversations between detectives of alternating theories, and several intense interviews of suspects. We see how when detectives build theories, there’s a line, a very fine line, between the possible and a fantasy:

All these stories. They hum like fist-sized hornets in the corners of the ceiling, circling idly, saving their strength. I want to pull out my gun and blow them away, neatly, one by one, vaporize them into swirls of black grit drifting downwards and gone. 

The Trespasser illustrates how detectives can be seduced by a theory, the importance of understanding the victim, and how, in the absence of another suspect, circumstantial evidence can go a long way towards conviction.

Even when we have something, touching it crumbles it into nothing. More nothing, sifting down like fine dust, piling up in sticky drifts on the glossy desks, gumming up the swanky computers.

The Trespasser, although it could be designated as a police procedural, is a very interior novel–mostly focusing on Conway’s thought processes which are influenced, and prejudiced, by her background and the ostracism at work. This is the sixth entry in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, and in this novel, we see the career of the hard-boiled Antoinette Conway, and the evolution of a murder detective. With the emphasis on the interior struggles of Conway and the grind of patient police work, The Trespasser may not appeal to readers who are looking for excitement, but due to the usual nature of the plot’s trajectory, it’s easy to see The Trespasser, a tale of revenge, manipulation and obsession, becoming a seminal crime novel for its study of methodology:

You don’t make the Murder Squad without having a world-class gift for finding creative ways to get under someone’s skin and wriggle around in there till they’d rip themselves open to get rid of you.

Review copy

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books

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The Secret Place by Tana French

“Young girls slip between worlds very easily, Detective.”

I missed Tana French’s first three crime novels concerning the Dublin Murder Squad (In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place), but I caught up with her for number 4: Broken Harbor, a book so good, it made my best-of-2012-list. The story of Broken Harbor is haunting; it was one of the best new crime books I’d read in ages, and yes, it was a page-turner, but the book was a lot more than that; it was also an exploration of human nature and how some of us deal with crisis.

The problem is that when a book such as Broken Harbor is that good, you start wondering if the author can hit the same stride for the next novel, and that brings me to The Secret Place–a book which is going to make my best of 2014 list. While Broken Harbor concerned the murder of an entire family in a seaside ghost estate, The Secret Place concerns the murder of a teenager, a boarder at an elite boys’ school.

The secret placeDetective Moran is stuck working cold cases when Holly Mackey, the teenage daughter of Frank Mackey (from Faithful Place), and a boarder at St Kilda’s girls’ school, arrives with evidence in the cold case murder of sixteen-year-old Christopher Harper. The year before, Christopher, the son of a wealthy banker, and a boarder at St. Colm’s, an equally elite boarding school for boys, was found murdered on the grounds of St Kilda’s. Various theories floated throughout the investigation at the time, none proved, and the case remained unsolved. Holly arrives in Moran’s office with a card which includes a picture of Christopher and the words “I know who killed him.” She tells Moran that she found the card posted on “The Secret Place,” a noticeboard devised by the school as an outlet for students to “express emotions that they don’t feel comfortable expressing elsewhere.” That’s PC-speak to explain that the noticeboard is ideally to curb internet bullying.

Moran approaches the lead detective for the case: Antoinette Conway, an attractive, icy, woman who has a poisonous reputation in the Dublin Murder Squad.

A woman working Murder shouldn’t rate scandal, shouldn’t even rate a mention. But a lot of the old boys are old school; a lot of the young ones too. Equality is paper-deep, peel it away with a fingernail. The grapevine says that Conway got the gig by shagging someone, says she got it by ticking the token boxes–something extra in there, something that’s not pasty potato Irish: sallow skin, strong sweeps to her nose and her cheekbones, blue-black shine on her hair. Shame she’s not in a wheelchair, the grapevine says, or she’d be commissioner by now.

While she’s made good career moves so far, the palpable antagonism against Conway in the squad room from her male colleagues has left her isolated and “flying solo” without a partner after her previous sidekick retired.  Aware that his career is stalled, Moran sees Holly’s tip as a way of getting out of Cold Cases and into the Murder Squad where he’s currently on the “shit list for the forseeable.” Conway’s life in the Murder Squad is hell. She’s not treated like one of the guys, and she won’t tolerate the sexual innuendos, so in the eyes of her rejected male colleagues this makes her perceived sexual orientation/preferences a source of jokes–to them, she’s either a lesbian or a dominatrix:

Conway was in an interview. I sat on an empty desk in the Murder squad room, had the crack with the lads. Not a lot of crack, now; Murder is busy. Walk in there, feel your heart rate notch up. Phones ringing, computers clicking, people coming in and out; not hurried, but fast. But a few of them took time out to give me a poke or two. You want Conway? Thought she was getting some, all right, she hasn’t busted anyone’s balls all week; never thought she was getting it off a guy, though. Thanks for taking one for the team, man. Got your shots?  Got your gimp suit?

Moran’s origins are working class, but whereas Moran can accept the knowledge that privilege and money will always open doors, Conway, from Dublin’s inner city “tower blocks IRA-wannabe graffiti and puddles of piss,” has zero patience for social status and niceties. Conway hit a wall in the investigation a year ago, and she got nowhere with the “shiny pedigree bitches” at St Kilda’s, girls from the wealthy homes who sniff her working class origins. The only lead Conway ever caught was that the victim was rumoured to be dating a St Kilda’s student named Selena.

The book goes back and forth from the present investigation to the past events which led up to the murder. The present, set within St Kilda’s, has a tightly, compulsively readable claustrophobic feel as Moran and Conway begin interviewing girls who knew Christopher. They try to penetrate the social world of these teenage girls, tentatively probing the membrane of friendship, loyalty and rivalry, and discover two sets of suspects: one group nicknamed the Daleks: 4 students dominated by a girl named Joanne, and another clique which includes Holly and Selena. Moran interviews each girl with intriguing results, and he’s very good at reading people, crafting an individual approach for each interview:

You want in a witness, you figure out what she wants. Then you give her that, big handfuls. I’m good at that.

Just as Broken Harbor recreated the desperate human face behind the housing crisis, The Secret Place showcases the artificial world of a girls’ school where the teenage girls compete, often viciously, for the attention from the boys at the boarding school next door. The nature of school life is ephemeral, and while some things that happen at school seem so important at the time, in the bigger scheme of an entire lifetime, these incidents will fade and disappear. But St Kilda’s, for some girls, is a crucible and because many of them have problem home lives, they’ve developed bonds that are unhealthy.

You forget what it was like. You’d swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched on the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled right enough to scold you, any second of any day could send you soaring or rip you to bloody shreds.

Tana French brilliantly explores the world of teenage girls–girls who are at a delicate, crucial time of life when their flexible morality is developing in the shift towards adulthood.  Broken Harbor concerned the death of an entire family in a house which held the echoes of the crime, and the same is true of The Secret Place. St Kilda’s is a vast school set on beautiful grounds, but there’s a strong sense of disquiet, the rumor of a ghost, and an atmosphere that fed murder–a very particular murder set firmly in its context and its unique set of circumstances.  The case throws Moran and Conway back into their pasts. The girls at St Kilda’s remind Conway of everything she had to overcome, and Moran finds himself remembering his own teen years while stepping very carefully to avoid the hazards of some of the more dangerous St Kilda’s students. A murder set among teens would normally not pique my interest and would more likely result in a yawnfest. The Secret Place is so much more than a crime novel, and yet it’s my favourite sort of scenario that explores a crime created by a unique set of circumstances, time and place. Highly, compulsively readable, the novel is structured to keep us guessing until the end while throwing in issues of class conflict, class acceptance, teen angst, sexual politics and above all, the extent, and the limits, of loyalty.

Review copy/own a copy

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Broken Harbor by Tana French

“Here’s what I’m trying to tell you: this case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right. By every rule in the book, this should have been the dream case.”

Those two opening lines from Irish author, Tana French’s fourth novel, Broken Harbor tell us a lot about Dublin Murder squad detective, 42-year-old Mick Kennedy: 1) he cares deeply about his job 2) he’s an engaging narrator, and 3) this is a man who places a great deal of importance on the rules. If you stop and think about it, murder is an instance in which rules are broken; I’m not just talking about laws because that’s obvious. But murder also breaks the rules of what we expect: parents kill their children, children kill their parents; spouses vow to love and cherish ’till death do us part,’ until murder suddenly and inexplicably becomes an alternative to divorce. Even neighbours sometimes engage in feuds that end in death. We’re all supposed to grow to a ripe old age, yet murder violates these expectations and breaks the so-called rules of these trusted relationships. As regular readers of this blog know, I read a lot of crime novels, but Broken Harbor is ahead of the pack for lots of reasons but more of that later.

The novel begins with Detective Kennedy and his rookie partner, Ritchie Curran on a new case. Kennedy, whose nickname is Scorcher, appeared in Tana French’s earlier novel Faithful Place and he’s back here as the narrator. Scorcher had the “highest solve rate” in the department but his success took a beating after a case went wrong, and now down to “second” he’s been given a chance to redeem himself by his boss, who hands him the case.

The second it hit the floor, I knew from the sound that it was a big one. All of us did. Your basic murder comes straight to the squad room and goes to whoever’s next on the rota, or, if he’s out, whoever happens to be around; only the big ones, the sensitive ones that need the right pair of hands, go through the Super so he can pick his man. So when Superintendant O’Kelly stuck his head around the door of the squad room, pointed at me, snapped, “Kennedy, my office,” and vanished, we knew.

The case is a triple homicide: dad, Pat Spain and his two children, Emma and Jack are dead, and Pat’s wife, blonde beautiful, Jenny Spain lies in hospital in a coma hovering between life and death. Right from the outset, the big money is on Pat as the suspect:

When it plays out like this, it’s usually the father: a woman just takes out the kids and herself, a man goes for the whole family.

The Spains lived in a large new home in Broken Harbor, a coastal town–now renamed Brianstown in a housing estate called Ocean View:

At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards LITTLE GEMS CHILDCARE and DIAMONDCUT LEISURE CENTRE. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance something was wrong.

That “something wrong” is a housing estate that started to be built during the economic boom but fell flat shortly after the economy tanked. Only a few houses on the estate are occupied. Other cheaply made houses were in various stages of being completed before the builders abandoned the project. There are “random collections of walls and scaffolding,” many houses lack windows or interior finishing,  some rooms are “littered” with remnants of building materials. It’s as if an alarm sounded and everyone walked off the job leaving the desolate housing estate semi-completed. A few families live on the estate, but squatters have moved in. The Spains lived in one of the occupied houses, and the feeling that there’s something radically wrong with Broken Harbor increases when the detectives enter the Spains’ home.

Scorcher is an engaging narrator who through training Curran also trains us about police procedure. Rule number one, according to Scorcher, (back to those rules again), “no emotions on scene.” Curran argues that his impoverished background and working in Motor vehicles has prepared him for “pretty bad stuff.”

All of them think that. I’m sure I thought it too, once upon a time. “No, old son. You didn’t. That tells me how innocent you are. It’s no fun seeing a kid with his kid split open because some moron took a bend too fast, but it’s nothing compared to seeing a kid with his head split open because some prick deliberately smacked him off a wall till he stopped breathing. So far, you’ve only seen what bad luck can do to people. You’re about to take your first good look at what people can do to each other. Believe me: not the same thing.”

And here’s Rule Number Two:

When someone’s behaviour is odd, that’s a little present just for you, and you don’t let go of it till you’ve got it unwrapped.

I’ve exchanged comments with Max at Pechorin’s journal regarding the creation of literary detectives. It’s ok to have a barely functioning low-rent PI who’s boozed up to his eyeballs, but once you have an alcoholic murder detective who’s on the skids, as a reader, I get fed up with this type of character appearing repeatedly. Scorcher is different. He’s a bloodhound on the scent of the killer, and once he has his teeth in a case, he doesn’t let go, and if that means working 20 hour days, then that’s what it takes. Part of the novel’s power can be found in the way the story is told. Scorcher and Curran arrive at the fresh and relatively undisturbed crime scene and we effectively arrive with them. Author Tana French creates a visceral shock and an intensity as we accompany the detectives through every room in the house.

When you get a chance to see a scene that way, you take it. What waits for you there is the crime itself, every screaming second of it, trapped and held for you in amber. It doesn’t matter if someone’s cleaned up, hidden evidence, tried to fake a suicide: the amber holds all that too. Once the processing starts, that’s gone for good; all that’s left is your own people swarming over the scene, busily dismantling it print by print and fiber by fiber. This chance felt like a gift, on this case where I needed it the most; like a good omen. I set my phone on silent. Plenty of people were going to want to get hold of me over the next while. All of them could wait til I had walked over my scene.

As you can tell from that passage, Scorcher is possessive about his crime. It’s his to solve–no one is going to take it away or screw it up for him, and this brings me to another story thread involving Scorcher’s past. Broken Harbor has a lot of bad memories for Scorcher, and these memories are impossible to bury as the investigation continues. By creating this thread, French draws some nice parallels between Scorcher’s past and the crime, and the case inevitably causes Scorcher to question his carefully constructed belief system. The story is also loaded with some sharply drawn secondary characters:  Office slouch, Quigley who’s viciously jealous of Scorcher’s success and can’t wait to stab him in the back if he gets the chance, Cooper the pathologist who goads Scorcher every chance he gets, Jenny Spain’s sister, Fiona who makes Scorcher uneasy for some reason he can’t fathom, and then there are the Spains’ low-life neighbours, the resentful Gogans who thought the Spains were snobs. Even Broken Harbour seems to become a character–a relic of smashed dreams of suburban success and rising affluence, and a place where violent events seem to be the natural results of a world in which everything went wrong.

While this is a who-done-it police procedural, there is also, rather interestingly, equal weight given to the ‘whys’ of the crime, and perhaps this is yet another reason that makes Broken Harbor stand out from the pack. Bottom line, for this reader, it’s Scorcher’s intelligence and single-minded drive that makes the book a riveting read, and here with one final quote is Scorcher’s “dirty secret” about murder:

I know this isn’t what we get taught on the detective course, but out here in the real world, my man, you would be amazed at how seldom murder has to break into people live’s. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it gets there because they open the door and invite it in.

Review copy from the publisher

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