Tana French’s “The Witch Elm” Delivers Spooky Suspense

in Thrillers by

I confess, starting to read Tana French’s new novel, The Witch Elm  (Viking), I missed the Dublin Murder Squad, a revolving cast of investigating detectives featured in her previous books.

It was a fine ensemble to fall into: Rob Ryan, the tormented policeman who flared and crashed in In the Woods; Cassie Maddox, who so seamlessly blended into the riddle of The Likeness; Frank Mackey, seeking the truth of his long-lost love’s murder in Faithful Place; Antoinette Conway taking on an entire girl’s school in The Secret Place; Scorcher Kennedy turning over Ireland’s economic woes in Broken Harbor; Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway probing their way into a neighborhood’s troubles in The Trespasser.

But by page 15 of The Witch Elm, I had become very much involved with Toby Hennessy, the totally unreliable narrator who by then has committed fraud at the Dublin art gallery where he works, and has described a drunken night he can’t wholly remember. Next, Toby is viciously attacked in an apparent robbery, leaving him with a head injury and an even more unreliable memory.

French has a great talent for creating a sense of place. As an American who lives in Dublin, she knows the city from both an outsider and insider perspective. Most of The Witch Elm takes place in a single location, the stately, secluded Ivy House, with a ghostly garden that looms as a character itself.

The Hennessy family home for generations, Ivy House now has a single occupant, Toby’s terminally ill uncle. Toby, still recovering from his own injuries, agrees to move in to help care for him. The Hennessy clan — Toby’s parents, his uncles and their wives — stops in regularly for Sunday gatherings. Toby’s cousins, Susanna and Leon, visit often, bringing all their memories and emotional baggage.

When an old skull falls from a hollow tree — a wych elm, botanically speaking — heads begin to spin with suspicions and dread, as detectives begin to interrogate. The dead body dates to a time 10 years before when Toby and his cousins spent their teenage summers in Ivy House, when all their friends knew that Ivy House parties there were “the good ones.”

Among the discarded titles for this book, there must be several that included the word “suspicion.” For 500-plus pages, French keeps up a constant background thrum of mistrust, doubt and, yes, suspicion: Who was the killer? Toby, his mind muddled by booze, hash and Xanax, even begins to suspect himself.

Tana French has been a rising star in the world of crime novels. Deep undercover and deep psychological suspense are her specialties, and her previous books have garnered multiple awards and honors. She studied acting at Dublin’s Trinity College and has a keen sense for dialog, using conversation to build up tension as skillfully as she uses location to cast a pall of disquiet.

The Witch Elm draws to its grisly conclusion at Halloween time, when cold wind, blowing long sheets of rain, sweeps through Ivy House’s desolate garden.

The Witch Elm is now available to purchase.

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ABOUT TANA FRENCH:

Image courtesy of www.tanafrench.com

Tana French is the author of The Witch ElmIn the WoodsThe LikenessFaithful PlaceBroken HarborThe Secret Place and The Trespasser. Her books have won awards including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Barry Awards, the Los Angeles Times Award for Best Mystery/Thriller, and the Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Dublin with her family.

Joanna Poncavage had a 30-year career as an editor and writer for Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine and The (Allentown, Pennsylvania) Morning Call newspaper. Author of several gardening books, she’s now a freelance journalist.

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