I’d been saving this one up for the summer holidays when I have time to indulge it, not sneaking a half-hour read in late at night when I should be sleeping. I also wanted to head back to the beginning of the series, having started with The Secret Place, and catch up chronologically.
And I am glad I did wait, despite the immense will power required: it’s been sitting on my to-be-read pile for ever!
And it’s amazing how vivid Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran have remained: the main characters in The Secret Place which I read four years ago – four years – and yet they have remained ridiculously alive and complex and convincing. It was a pleasure to slip back into their company again! French’s characterisation is (one of) her trademark strengths and, so far, she has not set a foot wrong with any of them.
Conway is our narrator on this occasion, a relatively new female detective who was and remains defensive, acerbic and – being blunt – a bit of a bitch, and this novel explores some of the reasons for that. Her dream job in the Dublin Murder Squad has resolved into a toxic, misogynistic experience, in which she is the only female detective: spit in her coffee, missing paperwork and statements, rumours and innuendos; urine in her locker; a workload consisting of tedious domestics, sapping her enthusiasm and commitment. Her mindset had reached a nadir as this novel opens: she is already considering her option and could potentially be leaving the Squad for a life in private security. Moran appears to be the only thing keeping her going.
The actual murder case, in some ways, is secondary here: this is Conway’s narrative and the story of her place on the squad.
The murder in question is that of Aislinn Gwendolyn Murray, a young and attractive – if somewhat generic – woman found murdered in her house, having apparently been preparing for an intimate meal for two. A search of her phone messages reveals a boyfriend in the shape of Rory Fallon, a Dublin bookshop owner and a date arranged for the night of the death. In every respect, it looks exactly like what Conway describes it as: “another fucking domestic”.
Except for a couple of features. Conway recognises the victim, a vivid flash of conversation but not enough – initially – to be a clue. A high profile detective, Don Breslin, has been attached to the case to “help out” because he is good with witnesses. Someone called the incident in, but not at the time of death, several hours later, and to the local station rather than 999. The oven had been turned off, perhaps by the murderer, but to what purpose? And the house had been thoroughly cleaned of fingerprints.
Certainly, there is enough there to pique a reader’s interest, and to raise questions in a detective’s mind – especially once the victim’s friend hints that there may have been a second lover over and above Fallon. But it is there that I faltered a little bit: Moran immediately jumps to the assumption that this must have been gang-related on the strength of a few books on the victim’s bookshelf and the fact that only organised crime would have cleaned the house so well. To be fair, backing up against One Good Turn, that might be a credible theory – ask for Favors! But he and Conway disappear a long way into that rabbit hole with never a shred of evidence to back it up, creating conspiracy and organised crime affiliations like a conjurer out of thin air. I’m not convinced that any police detective would make that leap.
Also, I felt a little touch of deja vu reading this: Conway and Moran’s relationship felt just a little too similar to Ryan and Maddox in In The Woods, French’s first Dublin Murder Squad novel. A little more prickly and still testing the waters, perhaps, but heading in that direction. If Conway stays in the Squad, that is.
And if we are looking for slight criticisms, I found the parallels between Conway’s private life and Aisling’s were a little too obvious and a little too convenient in terms of the plot development. Far too many absent fathers in this entry, perhaps.
That said, these are minor quibbles and easily overlooked with the strength of French’s prose. She continues the urban gothic atmosphere which marked this series – albeit taking a step back from the goat-smelling creature stalking Rob Ryan’s woods and several paces back from the magic realism of The Secret Place. It crystallises early on in this novel as Conway and Moran park beside a park and
The park is making me edgy. Outside the car windows the sky is dead, not one bird, and the massive trees feel like they’re slowly tilting inwards over us…
I want to get going. The bare trees feel lower, closer, like while I was focusing on Breslin they grabbed their chance to move in around us…
I hit the pedal hard and let the Kadett pretend it’s a real car while it gets us out of there. I get a sudden nasty feeling like the trees behind us have snapped together and come down, with a silent roar and a smash of branches, onto the spot where we were parked.
Moments like these, and the gorgeous sensual and synaesthetic language throughout – examples such as “We watch the moment when something spired and shining explodes with a tremendous roar inside his mind, jagged shards rocketing everywhere, burrowing deep into every tender spot.” – marks this out as a Dublin Murder Squad novel, as clearly as a fingerprint or DNA.
One of the features of the Dublin Murder Squad series is the varied narrators, shaping and reshaping our perception of each previous novel and the relationships within them. Drawing out misconceptions and misunderstandings. Here, the unreliability of those various narrators comes to the fore: again, not since Rob Ryan has the narrator felt quite so unreliable. Having seen a figure in her road, apparently casing her house, Conway says
We’re at the car pool. Just in that short walk, I’ve spotted eleven tall guys in dark overcoats. Every one made me feel more like a paranoid idiot, but the whole bunch of them can’t scrub away the prickle of warning when I think of the guy at the top of my road.
This novel – in fact the whole series – is all about stories and narrative: whose story about the Squad, whose story about the murder of Aislinn Murray, whose story about Conway, is right? Unlike most detective novelists, French is courageous enough to not close this one off. When we get to the conclusion, has the truth – or truths – come out? Has justice been served? Is the story that has been moulded by the characters the truth? The whole truth? Is it true enough to serve justice? It is a question which remains hanging over the conclusion and I found that courage not to crystallise it wonderfully refreshing.
Perhaps, it is inevitable as we now apparently live in a post-truth world!
Is it possible to consider that concept unironically?
As always, I try to avoid giving spoilers when reviewing detective fiction, but a shout out must go out to O’Kelly, the Murder Squad’s superintendent, the gaffer introduced back in In The Woods and who has been a constant background figure in most of the novels, generally smart, precise and paternal. The final chapters of this novel made me feel surprisingly moved at the thought of his potential departure.
Does that mark the death knell for the series?
I jolly well hope not because these are masterful and beautiful. But, it has been three years since this came out. I know we’ve had The Wych Elm since then, and apparently there is a BBC / STARZ /RTE TV adaptation coming this year, but where is our next installment? A quick google search found no news….
A plea to Tana French: please keep going with this series!
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Date: 22nd September 2016