I used to read a wider range of books, and by that I mean I used to be much more forgiving as a reader. But as my reading and writing tastes have grown sharper, I've become a lot more discriminating. I'll start a book and give up on it if it's not working for me or can't compete with any number of extremely well written games or books or TV shows I have at the ready. I bet many of you are no different. After all, we're not going to read another standard mystery with all the tropes (tough-guy detective, a slaughtered female body found on page one) when we can watch Ruth Langmore successfully wrestle with her "white-trash" identity in Ozark.
One of the writers who's best captured my attention--and held it--is Tana French.
When I picked up Faithful Place in 2016, I was pretty jaded, as a reader. I'd spent the previous five years reviewing, critiquing, and in some cases, rewriting hundreds--yes, hundreds--of mostly mystery-themed story games. During that time, I read a lot of mystery novels, everything from cozies to thrillers to classics. Before that, I'd interviewed four Northwest mystery authors for a Seattle Woman cover story. In 2016 I was nearing the end of my own mystery series--the Dreamslippers--inspired by the supernatural mystery games and books I'd enjoyed. By the time I stumbled upon Faithful Place in a used bookstore, I was in danger of becoming burnt out on the genre.
But Frank Mackey's riveting first-person voice reignited my love of mystery to a white-hot point. From the stunning open paragraph, I was hooked:
In all your life, only a few moments matter. Mostly you never get a good look at them except in hindsight, long after they've zipped past you: the moment when you decided whether to talk to that girl, slow down on the blind bend, stop and find that condom. I was lucky, I guess you could call it. I got to see one of mine face-to-face, and recognize it for what it was. I got to feel the riptide pull of my life spinning around me, one winter night, while I waited in the dark at the top of Faithful Place.
Full disclosure: I'm Irish enough to have had a grandfather with flaming red hair and who knew all the old drinking songs. Alas, he lived thousands of miles away from my military family and then passed away when I was only five, so I never learned any of his songs. But it's possible there's a cadence in the Dublin Murder Squad that appeals to me on some visceral, perhaps even genetic, level.
But I don't think you need to have a family tree that includes names like Sisley McKay and Skeets Larue in order for French's characters to resonate with you. They're incredibly well developed, authentic narrators who even when problematic gain your sympathy.
Curiously, each Dublin Murder Squad novel was written from a different character's point of view. After reading just a few of the books in the series, you start to get a 360-degree look at the squad, as each character views his or her work from a unique perspective.
The debut novel in the series--In the Woods--follows Detective Rob Ryan, a murder squad veteran who becomes undone by a case he pushes to investigate despite its connection to a cold case from his past; as a child, he survived what appeared to be a grisly attack. Though the brilliant novel averages at a bewildering four stars on Amazon--it deserves five!--it earned praise from the likes of NPR Correspondent Nancy Pearl, "A well-written, expertly plotted thriller," and The New York Times Book Review's Marilyn Stasio, who says, "Even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods." With a bit of elitism at work in the praise, Stasio nails French's literary writing quality, which should appeal to even readers who perhaps don't normally succumb to the allure of genre fiction.
These characters feel both fresh and authentic in part because they constantly thwart cliché expectation. Though French's debut centers on a detective driven to solve not just the case before him but the case in the past connected to his own deepest trauma, he remains (or at least tries to remain) detached, even matter-of-fact about it:
Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery. I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light (forgotten names setting echoes flicking like bats around my head as they testified in faded Biro that Jamie had kicked her mother because she didn't want to go to boarding school, that "dangerous-looking" teenage boys spent evenings hanging around at the edge of the wood, that Peter's mother once had a bruise on her cheekbone), and then never looked at it again.
Broken Harbor's Scorcher Kennedy bursts into the reader's consciousness with a thrilling bravado that could be mistaken for typical tough-guy talk, if it weren't for the fact that the case ends up dismantling him in ways he can't possibly foresee:
Some of the lads can't handle kids, which would be fair enough except that, forgive me for asking, if you can't cope with nasty murders then what the hell are you doing on the Murder Squad? I bet Intellectual Property Rights would love to have your sensitive arse onboard. I've handled babies, drownings, rape-murders and a shotgun decapitation that left lumps of brain crusted all over the walls, and I sleep just fine, as long as the job gets down. Someone has to do it. If that's me, then at least it's getting done right.
Rob Ryan, Frank Mackey, and even Scorcher Kennedy must all three reconcile evidence in the present with memories of the past, though none of them look through rose-colored glasses at the past, nor are they scarred by it any more than they are affected by what's happening to them now. In this way French turns tried-and-true mystery fodder on its head, making the characters and their lives in the here and now the driver of the plot. You want to know what happened in the past, yes, but if you reach the end of the novel, and the past still hasn't revealed itself, it doesn't really matter. You've come to know the character fully, suffered and died and been resurrected with him, whether he finds the answers or not.
Perhaps French's greatest character design achievement is that of Antoinette Conway in the latest book in the series, The Trespasser. Conway's character is an achievement not because she's the most compelling of the series but because she thwarts our expectations best. A woman is a rarity on the Dublin Murder Squad, and of course the target of sexual harassment and hazing. Though tough beyond belief--she can physically defend herself against a stalker, she plays hardcore video games to unwind, and she does not believe in romantic love--Conway wrestles with a narrative of distrust that threatens to tear her away from a vocation for which she has a passion like no other.
The Associated Press says, "Tana French is irrefutably one of the best crime fiction writers out there," and I have to agree. For me she surpasses other faves--Gillian Flynn, Sophie Hannah--and the ones whose popularity I can't grok (I'm looking at you, Megan Abbott). I'm four novels into the six-book series and can't wait to dive into the other two. Interestingly, French's most recent publication is a standalone, The Witch Elm. It looks wonderfully compelling, but I do wonder if the Dublin Murder Squad will go on, or if French herself has had a bit of burnout.
If you've read French, tell me what you think of her work below. If not, does this make you want to become a DMS fan? I think game writers and book authors alike can learn a lot from her exemplary character development.