“I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.”
That’s the first line of Tana French’s extraordinary new novel, “The Witch Elm,” and much of what follows is a meditation on luck — the good, the bad and the extremely ugly. Here’s a things-go-bad story Thomas Hardy could have written in his prime, although the Hardy version would probably contain no lines such as “I looked like the lowlife in a zombie movie who isn’t going to make it past the first half-hour.”
French has eschewed her popular Dublin Murder Squad series here to write a stand-alone novel, and as often happens, her work — never dull to begin with — has gained a certain lively freshness. Oh, there are detectives, and they arrive equipped with all the surface bonhomie and dangerous, not to say feral, undertones that we are used to in a French novel. The only difference here — and it’s a big one — is that when they finish one of their nerve-jangling interviews and exit Ivy House, the Dublin manse where most of “The Witch Elm” is set, we are not privy to their speculations or deductions. (This reader would enjoy a small companion volume, or perhaps an e-book, where at least some of those station-house conversations were available.)
As a reviewer, it’s my job to at least make a scratch at describing the plot of the novel, but as a fellow novelist, I balk at giving more than a few bare details. (In my opinion, the flap copy gives away far too much — when you know everything that’s going to happen in the first 140 pages or so, somebody went overboard.) A good novel, especially one that fits, however uncomfortably, into the mystery genre, is like an expensive Swiss watch. My job is to admire it, not overwind it.
Toby Hennessy, the self-avowed lucky narrator, handles publicity for an art gallery. The current show being prepared features street artists with no fixed address and, in some cases, detailed arrest records: skangers, in French’s pungent Irish argot, which also includes the unforgettable (to me, at least) line “I knew I should eat something, but I couldn’t be arsed.”
One of the artist-skangers, a fellow who goes by the colorful alias of Gouger, shows particular talent, but not quite enough for Tiernan, one of the gallery employees. Our narrator catches Tiernan touching up Gouger’s work to make it more interesting and salable. Toby keeps silent (his moral compass doesn’t always point to true north), but the gallery owner finds out. Tiernan is fired; Toby is not.
Shortly thereafter, Toby’s luck runs out. Intruders enter his home, and when Toby catches them at their burglary, they beat him within an inch of his life. He awakes in the hospital with holes in his memory, aphasia, splitting headaches, a limp and PTSD. When he returns to some form of consciousness and a doctor tells him, “You were very lucky,” the irony is so strong you could bottle it and sell it as a vitamin supplement.
So we have the classic mystery-novel situation, right? It’s the whodunit someone, most likely Toby himself, must solve. Was it Tiernan who set up the beating? Was it Richard, the gallery owner? Possibly the mysterious Gouger, seeking vengeance for having been booted from the exhibition?
Except the classic situation turns out to be tangential to the main story (although it returns to our attention in the novel’s jaw-dropping final 40 pages). Toby’s moral lapse at the gallery and his subsequent beating recede into the background when he goes to his Uncle Hugo’s house to recuperate, and a skull is found in the wych elm at the foot of the Ivy House garden. I tell you this only because it’s in the damn flap copy, and I trust your own powers of deduction, dear reader, to surmise that an entire skeleton soon follows.
So far, so Agatha Christie (who is even name-checked in passing). You have the murder victim, another skanger (although a rich one) whose passing we need not mourn; you have the small pool of possible suspects; you have the manor house with the walled-in garden where the body was discovered. But an Agatha Christie novel might run 250 pages or so. “The Witch Elm” is twice that length, and I’m relieved to report that those added pages aren’t just filler.
They are, in fact, the core of the book, and what lands French’s novel in that twilight zone between mystery and suspense (where this book will undoubtedly be shelved at your local bookstore) and literature. It is a strange and rich territory inhabited by such novelists as Michael Robotham, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, James Ellroy and Ruth Rendell. All of these novelists (and a dozen others) have “transcended the genre,” as they say, none of them in quite the same fashion.
The fine-drawn quality of French’s characterizations is one measure of the novel’s above-average success as literary fiction, which is to say fiction that enriches our lives rather than just serving to pass the time on an airplane or in a doctor’s waiting room. I was especially taken by Toby’s cousins, the former wild-child Susanna and the twitchy I’m-gay-so-deal-with-it Leon. The cops are good, too, with their cheerfully matey dialogue and their probing offhand questions. (Uncle Hugo was a bit too saintly for my taste, but you can’t have everything.)
Characters aside, the book is lifted by French’s nervy, almost obsessive prose. Although they are of different sexes and nationalities, when I read Tana French I’m always reminded of David Goodis (“Dark Passage,” “The Moon in the Gutter” and “Shoot the Piano Player”). She has that same need to go over it, and over it and over it again, like a farmer who can’t plow the field just once but must go at it from every point of the compass, sweating over the wheel of his tractor, not satisfied until every clod has been crumbled away.
It’s this obsessiveness, coupled with French’s smooth, almost satiny prose, that made “Broken Harbor” and “The Secret Place” such knockout books. In the former we see the step-by-step degeneration of a fine mind, mirroring the destruction of the Irish economy following the crash of ’08; in the latter we spend a feverish day of delirium in a girls’ boarding school. (Warning: There’s a lot of “amazeballs!” and “totes adorbs!”)
To read a French novel — this also goes for Goodis — is to enter an O.C.D. world where madness seems very close. In “The Secret Place,” it’s the hormone-driven madness of adolescent girls; in “Broken Harbor,” it’s that of a man who becomes increasingly convinced there are wild animals in the walls of his family’s house. In the current novel, Toby can’t even be sure of his own past and keeps returning to the holes in his memory like a man feeling the gum-cavities where teeth used to be. He’s about as far from Miss Marple as amateur detectives come, and yet he stumbles to some semblance of a solution, just the same.
Two scenes, both involving Toby and his cousins, are avatars of how French, like Goodis, doubles back on herself, not so much narrating as drilling down. Both are conversations running about 35 pages each. In lesser hands, these scenes would be a trudge. In French’s, the reader simply can’t let go. There’s a delirious intensity to them that seems to be French’s sole property. It’s not about the dialogue, as in a George V. Higgins or Richard Price novel; it’s about the obsession to make sure everything gets said.
Is the novel perfect? Nope. There’s a genealogical subplot that goes nowhere, and the elder generation of Hennessys are mere shadows. Toby and his cousins are nearing 30, but in the company of their elders — whose contributions are sort of like the conversations of adults in the “Peanuts” cartoons, just trombone wah-wah-wahs — they seem much younger. Saintly Uncle Hugo is an exception, but he’s a bit of a stereotype.
These are mere quibbles, the kind reviewers are paid to make, I suppose. The bottom line is this: “The Witch Elm” is what another novelist, Stewart O’Nan, likes to call “a heapin’ helping.” The prose, as fine as it is, as dense as it is, as obsessive as it is, remains in service to the story. This is good work by a good writer. For the reader, what luck.