In addition to Agatha Christie, my other recent obsession has been Tana French. As a self-proclaimed lover of thrillers and Irish lit, it’s been a source of shame for a great while that I’ve never read any Tana French, so I finally decided to rectify that, tearing through the first three books in her Dublin Murder Squad series in under a month. I’m currently on a French hiatus in order to catch up with some of my other reading, but I intend to pick up where I left off in early 2022.
IN THE WOODS by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad #1
Penguin Books, 2007
Each book in this series follows a different detective on the (entirely fictional) Dublin Murder Squad, and the series begins with Rob Ryan, who has memory loss around a traumatic event from his childhood, where he went out with his two best friends in the woods, and was the only one to come home. Twenty years later, Rob’s friends have never been found, and he’s working as a detective (a career choice that he insists is entirely unrelated), currently on a case involving a dead teenage girl who was found in the same Dublin suburb where Rob grew up.
The thing I’ve heard praised about French the most often is her writing, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s difficult to find thrillers that hit that sweet spot of propulsive/entertaining while actually displaying genuine literary skill, and I couldn’t be happier with how French manages to walk that fine line. Her mysteries are well-crafted and her books have that can’t-put-it-down factor, but the thing that really stands out about them is her brilliant character work and her deft hand at depicting the dark, fragile corners of human nature.
I only had two complaints while I was reading this, the first of which actually resolved itself—for a while, I found the depiction of Rob and Cassie’s friendship a bit tiresome; I felt like French would often go the extra mile to hammer the reader over the head with how special the bond between them was… but then by the end of the book I was stupidly invested in their relationship so I suppose Tana knew what she was doing there. The other thing is that French has this one habit that bothers me, where her narrators often turn to the reader and say something along the lines of “I know what you’re thinking”/”I know you must be wondering”/”I know how this sounds,” etc, and I find that whatever they’re next about to say rarely lines up with what I am actually thinking, leaving me with the vague sensation that they’re talking to someone over my shoulder rather than me. This is a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things but it did irritate me often enough to mention.
Anyway, I thought this book was fantastic, and while each book in this series can absolutely be read as a standalone, if you’re interested in getting into Tana French I do think this is a really good place to start. Without getting into spoilers, there’s a certain detail about the ending, about the way this book resolves itself, that I know a lot of people find objectionable to the point of being a dealbreaker. I actually knew this detail ahead of time, so I actually wasn’t fazed by it—but I like to think that if I hadn’t known, I’m not the sort of reader who would be too bothered by something like that. Anyway, just a warning that you may not find this book as satisfactory as you hoped—but I still really think it’s worth reading in spite of that.
THE LIKENESS by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad #2
Penguin Books, 2008
My favorite in this series so far, by a mile. Let’s get the absurd premise out of the way: before working on the Murder Squad, Cassie used to be an undercover agent, and in one of her old cases, she went by the alias Lexie Madison. Cut to the present: a dead body shows up, and the victim is not only identical to Cassie, but she had Lexie Madison’s ID on her when she died. In order to investigate the case, Cassie is sent back undercover, posing as Lexie and living with Lexie’s housemates, a group of university students.
Like I said, it’s absurd. But that’s okay. Fiction is fiction for a reason. What I actually found mildly irritating toward the beginning was just how much time was spent on French trying to justify this premise to the reader, by means of Cassie trying to justify her decision to take this ridiculous case to herself and to anyone else who would listen. Nothing about this is realistic and we could have all saved ourselves 100 pages if everyone just accepted that from the start.
That said, I really adored this book. With traces of The Secret History, The Likeness depicts with aplomb the insularity of academic and the fiercely obsessive quality of close friendship. Once Cassie gets into the house, this book—unlike Cassie—never takes a false step. The characters are all brilliantly rendered on their own, but as a group, their dynamic sings in a way that I find it particularly challenging for authors to capture in an organic, convincing way.
This book is just fun and indulgent and moving and sad, and it keeps you guessing from start to finish. I had the best time reading this.
FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French
Dublin Murder Squad #3
Penguin Books, 2010
Faithful Place is the first book in this series to follow a detective who isn’t working on the novel’s central case. It follows Frank Mackey, an undercover agent who gets a call from his younger sister—the only person he still speaks to from his poor, inner city Dublin family that he cut out of his life decades ago. A suitcase has been discovered, which belongs to Rosie Daly, the girl Frank had been in love with as a teenager. The two were planning on running off to England together, but Rosie never showed up that night, and Frank found a note from her which made it sound like she was going off on her own. He had never spoken to her again, assuming she had made her own way to England—but the discovery of her suitcase overturns his assumption that she had managed to make it out at all.
What I liked about this book is what I like about all of French’s books: solid mystery, distinct character voice (I’d actually describe French’s writing style as less “lyrical” in this book than in the first two in this series—which suited Frank to a T), the ability to get to the heart of her characters and connect the reader to what drives them.
What I disliked about this book was everything else. This book was overwhelmingly domestic, to a degree that was just never going to work to my personal taste. The biggest thing at stake here is Frank’s personal relationships: with his daughter, with his ex-wife, and with his estranged family. Any time I see the words marriage, divorce, parenthood, etc., in a thriller summary, I click swiftly away, so this is the sort of thing I never would have picked up if it hadn’t been a part of this series, and I can’t exactly fault a book for not being everything I personally wished it would be.
That said, I do think this is a notably weaker offering than the first two books in this series. Frank’s belligerence gets tiresome very quickly, and all of the conflicts in this book get very repetitive. I also found the whole setup very stereotypical: poor Irish family has too many kids and an alcoholic, abusive father—shocking! (I know French herself is Irish, and I don’t mean to imply that the family dynamic was handled insensitively—just that I thought there were opportunities for a fresher dynamic that French could have taken but did not.) I definitely didn’t mind reading this, but I’m hoping for more exciting things from the three remaining titles in this series I still have to read.