French’s first three novels promise better things to come

Ellie Gold

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. –“In the Woods”

“In The Woods”, “The Likeness” and “Faithful Place” are the first three Dublin Murder Squad mysteries by author Tana French. Each is told from the perspective of the investigating detectives, and the investigations all take place within the Dublin Region of Ireland. While Dublin does not actually have a Murder Squad, the realism of the novels comes from interviews and research done by the author.

“In The Woods” is French’s award-winning debut, and it begins with three missing children. The police find one of the boys, Adam Robert Ryan, with his shoes soaked in blood and his memory empty. The thriller takes place 20 years later, when Ryan, now a detective, and his partner Cassie Maddox catch the investigation of the murder of a 12-year-old girl in the same town : the same woods, in fact : as the missing children. The specters of his childhood friends cloud Ryan’s judgment and nearly proves fatal to his present ones.

“The Likeness”, narrated by Cassie Maddox, takes up where French’s debut left off. It’s been six months since the events of “In the Woods”, and Cassie is (for the most part) perfectly happy working in Domestic Violence, when she gets a frantic call from her fiancé in the Murder Squad. The victim is a young woman with Cassie’s face and carrying the ID of Alexandra Madison, Cassie’s former undercover alias. Cassie agrees to work once more with Frank Mackey, an undercover agent, pretending to be Lexie Madison in the midst of her friends (some of whom may be Lexie’s enemies; they are certainly Cassie’s).

“Faithful Place” is told from the point of view of Frank Mackey, as he is summoned back to his old neighborhood to investigate the 22-year-old disappearance of his girlfriend Rosie Daly. When he discovers Rosie’s body in the basement of Number 16 Faithful Place, it appears that almost anyone on the street could have killed her, up to and including Frank’s own father, and Frank’s status as a policeman fails to assist with his working-class relatives and former neighbors.

Murder mysteries, when done poorly or even mediocrely, have a tendency to slide into formula. Turn two-thirds of the way through the book for the big reveal, and by the way the second to last scene is the big showdown, that sort of thing. Only the great authors manage to slip around the formula, twist it and make it work for them, rather than the other way around. Tana French’s ear for dialogue and accent, her unusual thematic injections and her subtle yet precise prose style set her apart from the norm.

French’s novels, character-driven as they are, spend just as much time on character development and history as on the mysteries themselves. This allows her to address and develop such themes as identity, memory, class and perception in what could otherwise be the most formulaic of genres. Detective Ryan analyzes the events of Operation Vestal from his future vantage point as well as from his present one, pointing out mistakes and the flaws in his own reasoning. Cassie Maddox finds herself drawn into Lexie Madison’s life despite her knowledge that it brought about the girl’s death. Frank Mackey is forced to decide between his family and his job, between loyalty and integrity in a way made easier, perhaps, by his desire for revenge.

Mackey calls the moments in life that overturn one’s expectations : usually in unpleasant ways : the “sucker punch.” Tana French is quite adept at dealing those out to her characters and forcing them to grow in the process. She’s not done with the Dublin Murder Squad, and neither are we.