The Witch Elm

Toby describes himself as lucky, his cousin Leon says that he gets away with everything. He has always had things easy: a rugby star in school, smart, attractive, from an affluent background, and always able to talk his way out of jam––a skill that comes in handy in his job promoting an art gallery. He makes friends easily, has kept close friends since school, and has devoted girlfriend, Melissa.

Outside a minor scrape at work, life is good. That is, until he is beaten within an inch of his life during a home invasion.

The assault lands Toby in the hospital and suffering from brain injuries that leave him physically and emotionally fragile and struggling to speak. Around the time that he is to be released from the hospital, the second of his two cousins, Susanna approaches Toby about moving in to the Ivy House, the family estate where the three cousins spent summers as children, because his uncle Hugo has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer.

Melissa agrees to move in with Toby while he recovers, so the couple relocates to the old home. The new arrangement, alternating between quiet genealogical work with Hugo and the overwhelming activity of family gatherings, is good for Toby’s health. Life settles into predictable routines and, gradually, he recovers. Hugo’s health declines in step, though, and what will happen to the house after his death hovers over the proceedings.

Then one of Susanna’s kids finds a skull in the old Witch Elm tree in the back yard and their lives are thrown into chaos. The police cut down the tree and tear up the yard in their investigation. Once the identity of the body is determined to have been Dominic Ganly, an old classmate of Toby, Susanna, and Leon’s who was reported to have committed suicide just after they graduated, Toby begins his own investigation. He thinks he remembers the dead man as a friendly acquaitance, but could he have been wrong? Is his failure to remember the result of the brain injury or repressed memory? Could he have killed Dominic?

Tana French distinguished herself with the Dublin Murder Squad stories in her ability to spin out tight psychological dramas that build both suspense and emotional depth to relatively simple cases that her detectives solve. In The Witch Elm she flips the script, building a tight psychological drama in two separate cases, this time from the perspective of the victim of one of the crimes. We rarely get to see what the police do to solve the cases, and their methods only serve to exacerbate Toby’s anguish, leading eventually to an explosive late turn that worked after a sort, but put the rest of the story in a different the rest of the story in a different hue that was, in my opinion unnecessary.

(In broad terms, the twist shapes the form the story takes, adding depth to some of the questions of memory and call into question the entire story, but since they are impossible to talk about without spoilers for the whole book, so I will not talk about them here.)

Toby’s PTSD shapes the story, but the overriding themes are memory and identity. The assault and subsequent investigations force Toby to question who he is, even while Melissa tries to keep him grounded. First, the injuries fundamentally change how he interacts with the world and leave him with blanks in his memory. Then, when the skull turns up, everything he remembers about high school and his younger self is called into question.

In Toby’s memory, high school was generally fun, the other people generally benign. But, as Leon and Susanna are quick to point out, Toby has always had things easy. He was a popular, intelligent athlete. For Leon, a gay and eccentric loner, and Susanna, a quiet, nerdy girl, high school was not so fun and their classmates not so harmless. In truth, I came away from this part of the story rethinking what my own high school experience was like since, in some respects, my background was similar to Toby’s.

Lingering over everything is the question of whether or not Toby is a good guy. Melissa certainly thinks so and Hugo agrees, as do his friends, all of whom reassure him that he was the generally benign person that he saw in everyone else. Even Susanna and Leon generally agree, albeit with some minor qualifications. Before the assault, Toby would have taken this as his due; once he is forced to face the consequences of his actions, he is not so sure.

Minor issues with the final twist notwithstanding, The Witch Elm is a powerful and compelling drama that dives deep into questions of memory and family. I went into this novel with high expectations based on having read two of her earlier novels, Broken Harbor and The Trespasser, and a couple of positive reviews, and French more than met them. This is just more evidence that French is one of, if not the best mystery-suspense writer currently working.

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I am now reading Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in the Gentleman Bastards series.

The Trespasser

“Her life was so boring, just thinking about it make me want to hit myself in the face with a hammer for a bit of excitement.”

Despite her junior status, Antoinette Conway is an ass-kicker on the Dublin Murder Squad. With the amount of abuse she receives from her male colleagues as the sole woman on the squad, she has to be. But at this point she is also constantly on edge, even around her partner Steve, the only person she trusts, and ready to quit the force. But first she has to finish the case that arrived on her desk at the end of a night chef––if for no other reason than to show her misogynistic “colleagues” that she can.

The case seems simple enough: an anonymous tip came in that a woman named Aislynn Murray is dead, killed in her home in what seems to have been a domestic dispute. Aislynn is dressed for a date and the man she was seeing admits to having been at her home at almost exactly the time of her death. Even more, the young man, a local bookshop owner named Rory, appears to have been spending a suspicious amount of time on her street.

Everything points to Rory, so Breslin, a senior detective who volunteered to babysit the two rookies, is pushing for Conway to arrest him and close the case. But Rory doesn’t seem like the type and the facts don’t quite line up. Aislynn underwent a radical transformation in recent years without an adequate explanation, her best friend is withholding information and seems scared, and the apartment is wiped down of all prints.

Out of sheer determination and spite, Conway decides that she is going to see this case through to the end.

Like with Broken Harbor, another of French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels, the central case in The Trespasser is competently drawn. These are not grand conspiracies, but intimate crimes that present the detectives with numerous obstacles to overcome, both of which give French ample time to savor the minute details of the process. What sets French’s novels apart, though, is that each book contains a second plot that plumbs the psychological depth of one detective, while leaving the other members in the squad, some of whom repeat from novel to novel, in the background.

Here the fundamental conflict is over sexism on the Murder Squad and how much longer Conway is willing tolerate micro- and macro-aggressions in an environment where it feels like everyone is set against her. Compared to most other detective fiction both of these novels feel like a revelation, but this is the more successful of the two because the two conflicts are intimately connected. Rather than the case sparking the psychological drama, as in Broken Harbor, here the psychological feeds into the professional and vice-versa.

I came to French’s novels through a discussion from the NY Times Book Review podcast where one of the reviewers casually mentioned that French has a lot of devout followers. At this point, consider me a convert. Her stories are neither monumental nor exceptional at invoking setting, but they are brilliant intimate portraits of a single case and the people who solve them.

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My next book is Tonio Andrade’s The Gunpowder Age, a military history about the spread of gun technology. He seeks to answer how Europe came to dominate the world with this innovation that the Chinese developed nearly a half millennium earlier.

Broken Harbor

In every way there is, murder is chaos. Our job is simple, when you get down to it: we stand against that, for order.

I remember this country back when I was growing up…Sometime since then, we start turning feral. Wild got into the air and its spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train…Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.

The final step into feral is murder.


It could be the setup for a riddle. There are four bodies in a well-maintained (but for the holes in the wall) house with in a cheaply-built and never-completed residential subdivision. The dead children in their beds have the look of angelic peace, while the husband and wife lie next to each other in a pool of blood, both covered in cuts from an absent knife. The doors show no sign of forced entry. How did they die?

Enter the Dublin Murder Squad. Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy’s reputation for competence comes at a cost: he catches the toughest cases and the most trainees. Right now he has both. With the rookie Richie Curran in tow, Kennedy begins an investigation that takes him to the scene of the crime in Broken Harbor, a town outside Dublin now called Brianstown that holds deeply-buried secrets for the Kennedy family.

The case at first seems open-and-shut; dad did it. Despite his brash reputation, Scorcher plays the odds and this is what the odds say, particularly in the wake of an economic collapse. But the clues don’t quite add up. They can’t find the knife; not all of the wounds could have been self-inflicted; neighbors say the Spains recently started acting strangely, but friends say they were the perfect family; the computer’s history and hard drive have been wiped; searchers find a roost where it seems a voyeur watched the family. Detectives Kennedy and Curran start unraveling the mystery of what causes a perfect, loving family to snap.

Their inquiry receives a big break when Jenny Spain wakes up, but her answers only lead to more questions.

Broken Harbor is narrated in first person from Mike Kennedy’s point of view. This device gives insight into his personality—that he likes to keep control, that he follows the rules, that he is competent in a way that rubs coworkers the wrong way—and provides grounds for plot twists when there are developments in the case he cannot control. Moreover, it lends weight to the blending of the two plot arcs playing out simultaneously, the case and the events of his youth in Broken Harbor that intrude upon the the narrative when his younger sister Dina, a young woman with a mental illness, makes demands on his time.

Not a lot happens in Broken Harbor, and yet it is a meaty book, its brevity of plot more than compensated for by the psychological depth of characterization. Kennedy in particular chews scenery as he works the case, interrogates witnesses, and reflects on his limits in the case. At the same time, the more that the layers are pulled back from the picture perfect family of the Spains, the more superficial that image becomes. They become a family stuck in the past and flailing against the impossibility of a future during the economic collapse of 2007.

I love a good detective story, and Broken Harbor transcends the limits of that particular genre. French revels in the little details, such as making it abundantly clear that there are legitimately beefs people have with Scorcher even while the reader is embedded in his point of view and therefore predisposed to side with him. I didn’t get the same sense of place that I often go to mystery novels for, but French more than compensates with a gripping psychological drama that, if anything, is too unrelenting for all of the parties involved.

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Next up, I picked up Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven on the strength of a Max Temkin’s recommendation on a recent podcast. It is a delicately interwoven tale about the fallout from a cataclysmic pandemic that hasn’t grabbed me the way I hoped.