Book Review: The Trespasser

In her sixth book from the Dublin Murder Squad, Tana French hits it out of the park again. I think she’s one of the best true crime writers on the market today. French’s stories move along critically, methodically, and follow the natural course of asking whodunit.

We were introduced to Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran in The Secret Place, which gave me pause because The Secret Place is my least favorite in the series. (Note: It wasn’t because of Conway and Moran. It was because the main characters are spoiled brat teenagers and they were terrifically obnoxious. The core of the plot was still good.)  The Trespasser is free from pesky brats, so right away I was good to go.

Conway and Moran must solve the mystery of a woman found dead in her immaculate home. She’s young and beautiful, which means the beating that caused her death was likely a domestic. An angry boyfriend, perhaps. In typical French fashion, readers follow the detectives step by step, as each layer of the onion is peeled. Privy to Conway’s inner dialogue only, we consider suspects and motives as she considers them. We analyze evidence alongside her. Moran offers input, but we, like Conway, rely on our instincts.

The Trespasser, like all of French’s novels, moves along at an appropriate pace. Not too fast, not too slow. In keeping with the rest of the series, it is less about what and more about how. It’s always the how, which keeps the brain spinning for possibilities.

Also, I listened to it on audiobook, a first for me since I own the rest on paperback. Narrator Hilda Fay has the most delightful Irish accent.

So yes, I recommend The Trespasser. More so, I recommend Tana French.

A note on the Strong Female Lead Character: I recently read a thread on Twitter that had me second-guessing my frustrations with lead character Jazz in Artemis, the strong female character I did not like and who ultimately became the reason I didn’t finish the book. Was I too harsh? Am I letting male characters be messy and flawed but not extending that grace to female leads? Am I casting them as unlikable? Am I exhibiting a bias? 

After reading The Trespasser, I’ve cut myself the slack because Detective Antoinette Conway is as strong and flawed as they come. She is pushy and snarky. She’s harassed and prodded on a daily basis and always comes out swinging. She’s got a foul mouth and a quick hand. She is exactly the woman I’d never want to cross.

So what’s the difference? The difference is in the construction. Detective Conway is a well-written, fleshed out sharp but flawed character. Jazz is a simulacrum, pieced together by a male writer who thinks Jazz is what a strong female character looks and sounds like. Those two things are not the same.

Does that mean a man cannot write a strong female lead character well? Absolutely not. Ken Follett, Wally Lamb, and Khaled Hosseini all do this effectively. Perhaps, then, this issue is best handled on a case by case, or book by book, basis rather than in sweeping statements made on Twitter.

But then, isn’t everything?

Book Review: The Secret Place

the secret placeWell, the streak was bound to end. They can’t all be great.

Unlike Into the Woods, Faithful Place, The Likeness, and Broken Harbor, I did not enjoy The Secret Place. In fact, I struggled to finish it.

In keeping with the Dublin Murder Squad standard plot equation, there’s been a murder and you, as the reader, have a couple of hunches right off the bat. You follow the investigators – this time, it’s Detective Antoinette Conway, a brisk and seasoned officer, and a tag-along from Cold Cases, Detective Stephen Moran. Together they look into the year-old murder of a high school student from a high-brow, all-boys boarding school. The suspects? Two rival groups of four girls from the sister school.

And that is exactly what I didn’t like about the book: all the dang teenagers.

This is why I don’t read Young Adult. I’m not interested in teenage emotions, teenage drama, teenage anything. I don’t want the angst, the eye-rolling, or the verbal drivel of OMG! and other obnoxious phrases like “totes amazeballs.”

I’m a little disappointed that this is where Tana French went with her fifth book. Perhaps it won’t bother others the way it bothered me, and if that’s the case, I apologize for the negative review. All the other elements of the plot were true to the series – suspense, cliffhangers, subtle clues, and damaged people. It’s just unfortunate that the damaged people in The Secret Place were too irritating to ignore. You’ve been warned.

Book Review: Broken Harbor

broken harborIt wouldn’t be accurate to say that Tana French writes the traditional “Whodunit?” crime thriller because it’s almost always clear which character committed the murder. The mystery is more about how the Dublin Murder Squad puts the pieces together and closes out the case. Readers are alongside the detectives at every step.

Broken Harbor begins with the murder of a family of four – well, nearly. The mother barely survives as her body is found in the last stages of its life. Detective “Scorcher” Kennedy is all too familiar with the neighborhood where the Spain family lives. It was one of those up-and-coming, pop-up communities where all the houses look similar and there are promises of playgrounds and swimming pools. Yet the builders were scammers and the Spain’s neighborhood was left half-built and mostly empty. Inside their own house, animal traps, half a dozen baby monitors, and holes in the walls make the case even more curious. But what does that have to do with the murder of Pat Spain, his two children, and the near-death of his wife, Jenny?

Hmm.

Richie, Scorcher’s rookie partner, brings balance to their investigation with a set of fresh eyes. Plus, they both have their own demons to contend with, childhood memories and hauntings that shape the way they consider suspects. The story unfolds slowly and carefully. A little more than halfway through the book I figured out who the murderer was, but I couldn’t figure out how the detectives would unpack all the clues and end up with a conviction.

This is why Tana French is so good. She crafts a story so delicately that you have to wonder where she starts. Is it with the murder? The motive? Does she start at the end and work backward? Does she start with one character and build from there? Does it just flow out of her brain, like it took no effort at all?

She’s good, y’all. I started The Secret Place yesterday and I’ve already got my sights on the villain.

Buy Broken Harbor here. 

Book Review: The Likeness

The likenessMy first taste of Tana French was reading In the Woods last spring. Then I read Faithful Place. Of the two, In the Woods was better since the villain was a little less obvious. Still, I love this woman’s writing style. Absolutely love it. It gets wordy, but man – you feel like you are RIGHT THERE.

The Likeness continues the ongoing saga of cases handled by the Dublin Murder Squad. This time, Detective Frank Mackey plays a secondary character and Detective Cassie Maddox takes the spot as protagonist.

There’s been a murder. A young girl by the name of Lexie Madison has been stabbed and left for dead in an old, abandoned cottage. When officers arrive on the scene they are blown away in disbelief to discover that the victim bears an incredible likeness to Detective Maddox. It’s uncanny, strange. Furthermore, the name and persona of “Lexie Madison” has already been used – by Cassie, in a former case.

Evidence suggests that Lexie wasn’t killed in the cottage. She was moved. Things were arranged. All signs point to the housemates. Being the creative character her is, Frank sees this likeness as an opportunity for a game of pretend. After a few minor adjustments to her physical appearance and a quick debriefing, Cassie resumes her former role as Lexie Madison to infiltrate the house where she’s been living with four other people, genius outcasts who didn’t know that Lexie wasn’t Lexie to begin with.

Similar to the other Tana French books I’ve read, I had a good idea to the guilty party. You might think that wouldn’t make the book interesting, but I enjoy French’s writing so dearly that presuming who committed the crime does not detract from the tension. I consumed this book in four days, and it’s 400 pages. The tension and pacing is what makes her books solid thrillers.

Unlike The Girl on the Train, with its cliché victim/villain equation and simplicity, The Likeness is original in content and creativity. It puts readers in every scene, like a bystander. We get to observe and absorb clues just like the detectives. We experience suspicion and stress just like the characters, which I argue can only be accomplished by stellar writing.

So yeah. I really like Tana French. You should give her a try.

Buy The Likeness here. 

 

Book Review: Faithful Place by Tana French

Faithful PlaceWhen I read In the Woods, I didn’t know it was part of a series about Dublin murder cases, but alas, it is. In Faithful Place, Frank Mackey is our grouchy protagonist who went into police work after running away from his ghetto neighborhood at nineteen years old. He intended to run away to England with his girlfriend, Rosie, but when she didn’t show up on the get-away day, he assumed she lost her nerve.

Her body is discovered years later in an adjacent townhouse and Frank is determined to find out what happened to his first love.

A few things I loved: the crazy family dynamic, the gruffness of Frank’s discontent, the poetic way Tana French describes each scene and character…

The thing I didn’t like: The lack of suspense. Just as soon as the investigation got underway I knew who killed Rosie. It poured out of the pages with such clarity that I was sure a twist or turn would yank away my suspicions. But no. The person who I thought did it actually did it, so when the confession came, I wasn’t blown away. (That wasn’t the case for In the Woods, by the way. That one had me on edge.)

Don’t get me wrong – Tana French is a beautiful writer. Case in point, this first paragraph of Chapter 4:

The rain had slackened off to a faint damp haze, but the clouds were getting denser and darker; there was more on the way. Ma was pressed up against the front-room window, sending out curiosity rays that practically burned my eyebrows off. When she saw me looking in her direction, she whipped up a J-cloth and started furiously cleaning the glass.

French writes with careful cadence, the sort of rhythm that makes each sentence easy to read. I don’t know a thing about living in Dublin but French makes me think I do. Everything is so well described that almost nothing is left to the imagination. Not everyone loves that sort of writing, but I do. I want to submerge myself in a setting so that I actually live there for the duration of the book.

Perhaps it was her attention to detail that made the criminal so obvious. The character jumped off the page immediately, so much that I even thought, “Surely it’s not this person. That would be too obvious.”

In the Woods was a better book, but French’s writing is impeccable all around.

Buy Faithful Place here.

Book Review: In the Woods by Tana French

It’s important to note that In the Woods was Tana French’s first novel. Not only was it warmly received, but it spurred another four murder mysteries that also did well on the market. I’m encouraged by this, especially since the word count of In the Woods surpasses the average for first time novelists.

inthewoods_usOverall, the narrative is beautifully written. French’s ability to capture the emotion of the moment and convey it to the reader is on point and at length. Told in first person by Detective Rob Ryan, you feel as if you’ve sat down for an interview with him, a secret conversation where he tells you things he can’t tell other people. It’s intimate that way, but it’s also deeply disturbing.

Two crimes occur in Knocknaree, Ireland, one in 1984 (the disappearance of two children) and one in present time (the murder of a twelve-year-old girl). At first the crimes don’t seem related, aside from both occurring in the wood near town.

Yet there is a big connection and his name is Detective Ryan, but his memory is shifty and his nightmares are vivid, so it’s only a matter of time before his secrets implode.

There are only two negatives about this book. One, some of the narrative was too long. It’s important for us to be in Detective Ryan’s head, sorting through his memories and processing evidence, but sometimes his inner sermons were really long. Sometimes he conveyed important information pertinent to the crimes, but most of the time it was an emotional outpouring that eventually became unnecessary. We knew the guy was suffering. We didn’t need to continue beating that horse.

Second, I had a pretty good hunch who was involved in the murder early on. I’m not sure if that’s because the character was too archetypal or if I knew it on my own senses. Still, I read most of the second half waiting to see how the character was going to be revealed, which I supposed was a mystery inside the mystery.

Other than those two things, the book was thrill.

Next up: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton.

Buy In the Woods here.