Tana French has written three novels—In the Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place—with a fourth on the way this summer. All of them are police procedurals set in and around Dublin, and each is told by a different member of the murder or undercover squads.
I read In the Woods in a single day, and immediately bought the next two and read them within the week. Each novel is about a different mystery, so there’s no reason to read them in order, though it is interesting to see how French develops as a writer and how each new narrator lives up to and defies the perspective from the previous narrator.
In the Woods is narrated by Rob, a murder squad detective, who as a child was one of three kids to go into the woods. He was the only one to make it out, with blood on his shoes and no memory of what happened, and the other two children disappeared. Now, Rob and his partner, Cassie, are sent in to investigate the murder of a child in those same woods.
This is a well-plotted mystery, and French keeps you turning the pages even when you think you know what happened. What separates French’s work from the average mystery is her attention to language and her verisimilitude. She evokes the characters and the setting with an attention to craft that reminded me of The Wire.
Her one weak spot, in this first novel, is that you occasionally can tell the author is a woman writing as a man. Rob is a self-destructive character, but French takes pains to explain away his purely Platonic interest in his partner—and that over-convincing borders on overcompensation.
That challenge is alleviated in The Likeness, overall a more confidently written novel told from Cassie’s point of view. In a Wicklow village outside Dublin, a young woman is murdered, and she’s the spitting image of Cassie. Since the police have no suspects and no motives, Cassie goes undercover into the woman’s life (the woman, herself living under an assumed name, roomed with four Trinity students in a spooky old house) to see what she can dig up.
As with In the Woods, The Likeness is a quick read and a well-written novel. The situation is completely unrealistic, but given the situation, French totally convinces you of everything that follows. What’s more, part of the intrigue is that you, like Cassie, are able to go undercover, to experience the dangers of being found out, and to see first-hand the menace of Ireland’s class tensions, which are rooted in the history of English rule and Protestant ascendancy.
Faithful Place leaves the murder squad for the life of Frank Mackey, who runs undercover operations. Frank grew up in a rough tenement neighborhood in Dublin, and he left home for good at nineteen when his girlfriend abandoned him for England—or so he thought. Twenty-two years later, he receives a call from his sister; they’ve found his girlfriend’s suitcase in an abandoned tenement, and he goes home to investigate, and in the process he must reckon with his crazy family and the childhood he thought he left years ago.
Frank might be French’s most intriguing narrator. He’s smart and cunning and has fewer moral scruples than her previous narrators. While this novel, ultimately, has the same combination of police investigation and psychological exploration as her first two, her prose is more confident still, and her attention to the nuances of place—treated obliquely in her first two—is fully realized.