Pointers to what she will become……..
I encountered Irish writer Tana French only recently, when her fourth book, Broken Harbour, got a rave review from a blogger who is firmly wedded to good writing, rather than genre fiction. Go see FleurInHerWorld As this is my position too, I was swayed, and blown away by French’s version of crime fiction, police procedural and psychological thriller, all carefully showing she is a literary fiction writer, who chooses to write in this kind of subject matter area.
And so it is that I’ve gone back to explore French’s progression as a writer, via her first book, and will, for sure, progress to books 2 + 3
For those unfamiliar with her work, Book 1, In The Woods, is of course the perfect place to start.
French’s territory is murder, and the police investigations undertaken by Dublin’s Murder Squad. She has chosen not to follow one particular detective and partner through all the subsequent investigations; rather, she focuses on the squad itself and a different pair of detectives will come to the foreground in each book, and others in the pool may stay as a background note across several investigations, be bit players, or come to take stage centre.
This is a fascinating and excellent approach, as it does mean that the reader can start reading her books in any order, without thinking they have missed vital back history, often a problem when one particular main character is followed in a series.
There are a couple of central cores to the three books I have read so far – the story of each individual main detective, including their back history which will slowly be revealed and will explain who they are, and why. There will also be the crucial relationship between the two detectives themselves, and their relationship within the murder squad as a whole. By this, French wonderfully covers the interior workings of a central character, how they are in a significant one-to-one relationship with a working colleague, and how they, and indeed the two of them, are within a wider community of others. And then, of course, in parallel is the investigation, the crime, where the victim and their story will be teased out, the thread to connect them with the perpetrator worked clear from all the potential many threads which will need to be explored and investigated
French’s own background is as an actor, and, to me, there is a correlation here between 3 kinds of theatrical focus a performer may have – there is first of all the interior, which may be expressed as soliloquy, a performer alone upon a stage. Then there is the immediate focus of `small other’ where there is a relationship between two individuals on a stage, and, however tangled, the lines of that relationship may be clearly seen. Finally, there is the relationship of the group of characters themselves, cross currents, tangles and all – and then this may be taken out even wider, in plays where the fourth wall is broken down, and the characters acknowledge the wider world which incorporates the audience as another collective. French does not just set her crime investigation as an isolated event, as so far, wider concerns which may be present in society are examined
In this particular story the victim is a young girl, and a particularly horrible crime. As all investigations must, initial focus is on the family itself, and that family is quite strange.
What is also going on, as part of the whole Celtic Tiger economic phenomenon, and the collapse which happened, is a story around community expansion, business interests, corruption and politics.
And, central stage in this novel, two detectives, a man and a woman, who from the off have been firm and platonic friends. Cassie Maddox has, like another female detective in the squad in French’s fifth book, challenges because she is a woman in an environment which is aggressively old fashioned and macho, still. Rob Ryan her work partner, has the history of a terrible and unresolved crime which happened back in his childhood, to two of his friends. He has, in theory at least, found ways to deal with something which devastated him, his family and the families of his two dead friends. However, because the crime was never resolved, and became a cold case, with neither the bodies discovered, nor a perpetrator found, there has been no closure, for anyone from that community. And it also means that any murder involving a child is one which could completely shatter all Ryan’s coping strategies.
These three children own the summer…This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams.
They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear. Down the faint lost paths you would never find alone, skidding round the tumbled stone walls, they stream calls and shoelaces behind them like comet-trails. And who is it waiting on the riverbank with his hands in the willow branches, whose laughter tumbles swaying from a branch high above, whose is the face in the undergrowth in the corner of your eye, built of light and leaf-shadow, there and gone in a blink?
I suspect, had I read this book without having read French’s latest two, I would have five starred it. Because I know where she now is as a writer, my bar for her is set very high. In this one, I think she is a little closer to the more formulaic writing in genre, than she now is, a little more obvious in her choices. It is however a wonderful first novel, and, as ever, her understanding of psychology, relationship, narrative drive are excellent.
She is a writer who seems to focus more on how the ordinary man or woman crosses the line into violence and there is less focus on graphic gore and deranged psychopathology than often litters the genre. And that external restraint, and more meticulous examination of the process of crossing the line which is certainly a hallmark of book 4 and 5, is what I think of as a kind of sophistication in her as a writer, not completely in place in book 1.
However, still recommended, still highly recommended