Recipe for a Tana French Dublin Murder Squad novel:
Take an atmospheric and intense setting, such as the last remnant of an ancient forest, a secluded mansion or a half completed housing project abutting the sea; insert a handful of characters with intense and golden relationships; raise the pressure and temperature; remove from the oven when those relationships start to rip slowly and tortuously apart; dust with a subtle hint of the supernatural.
This is the fourth of Tana French’s explorations of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, after In The Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place. I first read The Secret Place and loved it enough to gorge on the rest of the series which I continued to love – although Faithful Place has been a struggle to get into. This entry, however, I think is the strongest in the series so far.
The setting, the characters, the language here are all pitch-perfect: heightened but utterly convincing; rooted in the economic reality of the recession in Ireland but with a poetic lyricism. The Spain family is found slaughtered in their safe and middle class home in a housing project which was abandoned as the investments ran out surrounded by shells of houses and ghosts of what could have been: their children had been smothered; the father, Pat, knifed to death; the mother, Jenny, barely alive. An experienced detective, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy – being offered a chance to reclaim past glory following some vaguely hinted at disaster – is paired with a rookie detective to investigate. As usual with French, the relationship between the detectives and the budding trust and respect between Kennedy and Richie Curran – a mentor-mentee relationship growing into a putative partnership – is a beautiful and tender as the victims’ relationships. Kennedy is not immediately likeable saying such things as
“in this job everything matters, down to the way you open your car door. Long before I say Word One to a witness, or a suspect, he needs to know that Mick Kennedy is in the house and that I’ve got this case by the balls. Some of it is luck—I’ve got height, I’ve got a full head of hair and it’s still ninety-nine percent dark brown, I’ve got decent looks if I say so myself, and all those things help—but I’ve put practice and treadmill time into the rest. I kept up my speed till the last second, braked hard, swung myself and my briefcase out of the car in one smooth move and headed for the house at a swift, efficient pace. Richie would learn to keep up.
But a softer side to him emerges, whether it be consoling Curran in the autopsy or keeping his sister, Dina, whose mental state is simultaneously vulnerable and perceptive, safe or in his own deeply tragic personal history. He is a man who presents a mask to the world and may not know himself where the real face lies beneath it.
In terms of the plot, French keeps up a cracking pace: the advantage of the detective fiction form, perhaps. Pat, the dead father, is initially suspected; a stalker is discovered quickly but the case keeps deepening.
French’s prose, in the lips of different protagonists in each novel, is, as always, beautiful, poised between the lyrical and the real. As he enters the house, Kennedy tells us
that was when I felt it: that needle-fine vibration, starting in my temples and moving down the bones into my eardrums. Some detectives feel it in the backs of their necks, some get it in the hair on their arms—I know one poor sap who gets it in the bladder, which can be inconvenient—but all the good ones feel it somewhere. It gets me in the skull bones. Call it what you want—social deviance, psychological disturbance, the animal within, evil if you believe in that: it’s the thing we spend our lives chasing. All the training in the world won’t give you that warning when it comes close.
And when he sees the harbour, where his own personal tragedy is centred, we are told of the
rounded curve of the bay, neat as the C of your hand; the low hills cupping it at each end; the soft gray sand, the marram grass bending away from the clean wind, the little birds scattered along the waterline. And the sea, high today, raising itself up at me green and muscled. The weight of what was in the kitchen with us tilted the world, sent the water rocking upwards like it was going to come crashing through all that bright glass.
And, finally, when looking into the Spains’ attic, an attic guarded with a thick mesh and holding a vicious bear trap, Kennedy says that
For an instant I thought I saw something move—a shifting and coalescing of the black, a deliberate muscled ripple—but when I blinked, there was only darkness and the flood of cold air.
As well as location and atmosphere, which she manages and manipulates with an exquisite Gothic sensibility, French is very good at insanity here. No spoilers, but the Spains, behind their own affluent and successful mask – which marks them out as snobs to their few neighbours – both disappear into different rabbit holes. And they are both wholly credibly described and experienced by the reader.
This is one of the best detective novels I have ever read. Full stop. It is literary and eloquent but never loses its way as a piece of detective fiction. And its conclusion and final revelation – and the ethical dilemmas explored – are enough to warrant tears. Hauntingly, chillingly beautiful.