New(ish) Crime Writers, part 3.

by Harry on November 30, 2015

Onto Tana French, the first of the ‘only counts as British because all Irish people who accomplish impressive things get claimed as British unless, of course, those impressive things involve some sort of successful military or political action against the British’ crime writers (Brit-ish, perhaps, with apologies to Jonathan Miller). I’ll be honest, I’d seen her books in airport bookstores for a while; my unreasonable prejudice against apparently made-up names (I know that Nicci French is a made up name, and suspect I was confusing Tana with Nicci); and quite well-supported belief that books in airport bookstores are not for me led me to dismiss her. [1] A friend gave me In The Woods for my 50th birthday, and I eventually turned to it. So…

All 5 books so far are brilliant.

They constitute a series, although the central protagonist of each book is different, and, after the first one, is typically someone who appeared in a less central role in a previous novel — all members of the (fictional) Dublin Murder Squad. This gives French more freedom than most series writers, allowing her to play with different characters, and allowing readers room for to imagine that loose ends (as in the first novel) might get tied up later — maybe much later. Her confidence and mastery show up in her outright violation of one of the great conventions of crime writing in the very first novel (no, I’m not going to tell you which convention, that’d ruin it), and doing it well! The masterpiece – her Brat Farrar, in more senses than one – is her second, The Likeness. Like Kate Atkinson, French is willing to stretch credulity, and I think The Likeness is the crime novel I have believed in that stretched my credulity more than any other (including Brat Farrar) depending, as it does, on the idea that the protagonist can impersonate a recently dead doppleganger well enough to fool at least some and maybe all of the people the dead woman lived with (a household resembling slightly the revolting cast of The Secret History). My teenage daughter thought I would find The Secret Place – set in a posh girls’ school where the investigating detective’s daughter is connected to a clique any one of which, including her, might be the killer – sub-par, because, she thought, I would find the characterizations of the teenage girls implausible, but I didn’t. And, she, the budding sociologists, said that if I had found them implausible I’d have been wrong. [2]

Although in so many ways unlike PD James, it’s no surprise to find Innocent Blood on her top ten list (and still less to find two books by Josephine Tey). Her claustrophobic worlds are populated with characters damaged by their pasts. I look forward to her next book the way I used to look forward to the next Reginald Hill or PD James (and still do when I forget that none is on its way).

Finally. As usual, ideally you’d read the books in the order they are written in. But, I would say this series is more forgiving in that way than most. Definitely you should read the first two in order (In the Woods, then The Likeness). and definitely you should read the 3rd and 5th in order (Faithful Place then The Secret Place), but you could get away with reading 3-5 before 1 and 2, if you had to.

[1] Why can’t one of those freakonomics people write about why the quality of books in airports has not improved during the period in which the quality of food in airports has improved?

[2] According to wikipedia the New York Times praised the novel as “much more than a genre piece” but noted that the teenage characters’ frequent use of American slang “may not make this the most inviting milieu for those who like the sheer Irishness of her other novels.”: fwiw, having seen my step-nephews’ texts and facebook posts, the texting seemed wholly realistic to me.



Helen 11.30.15 at 11:18 pm

I was disappointed with In the Woods because, although the central mystery was eventually wrapped up [Helen was upset by the convention-busting — I’ve edited out the spoiler — HB] If French’s novels are a series, should I keep reading and will I learn any more about that? Call me unimaginative, but crime novels which leave important plots dangling are really annoying to me. Leave the imaginative stuff to the literary fiction!


Harry 12.01.15 at 12:26 am

Helen — I hope you don’t mind me editing your comment.

Answer: she hasn’t wrapped it up yet. But I have seen interviews where she hints that she will — but she would say that, wouldn’t she? She doesn’t do anything in the later novels that you will find similarly disappointing, I can assure you, and if you liked In The Woods otherwise, you will love The Likeness and you’ll be hooked.

On disappointment — try Susan Hill’s Simon Serraillier series. I accidentally read the second one first, and discovered who the killer was in the first one because… she doesn’t bother to solve the central plot in the first one! But it is only when you read the first one that you discover it was the central plot. And… while Tey and French manage to make identity questions believable, Hill manages to make encounters in motorway cafe’s entirely implausible. Needless to say, I’m saving that series till I have dementia, at which point I won’t care…


Alan White 12.01.15 at 5:33 am

I loved In the Woods.

After today’s meeting in Madison, escapism and retirement look better than ever.

I really appreciate these posts Harry.


Garrulous 12.01.15 at 7:08 am

Thanks! Got In the Woods on your recommendation and am enjoying it.

Not sure the “claim all Irish as British unless and until..” thing happens so much anymore, unless the person seeks it out one way or another: e.g. Graham Norton, Eoin Morgan.


Peter Hovde 12.01.15 at 7:33 am

In *Brat Farrar,* the doppelganger showed up a whole adolescence period after the original was gone, so I’d say *The Likeness* was far more credulity straining, and yet I bought into it.


chris y 12.01.15 at 11:42 am

I read In the Woos on somebody’s recommendation, and recognised it as an acutely observed and excellently written novel, but it didn’t push me to read any more. One of those novels that you have to be feeling emotionally strong and together in your own life to cope with, not something to pick up and put down for fun.


Trader Joe 12.01.15 at 12:56 pm

As noted on a prior thread, I found this author to be an excellent suggestion and I quickly buzzed through the entire series (in order – which I think is reasonably important since there are some continuity strands).

I think Faithful Place (third one) was easily the best. I think the Likeness was easily the worst having now read them all, but I didn’t see it that bad at the time. As Harry notes there’s a big reader-leap involved in believing a person can have an actual doppleganger and as we learn more about the person the detective is trying to impersonate the leap becomes more and more implausible….still….the plot is clever enough that you’re willing to play along.

The one Harry didn’t mention – Broken Harbor – has the densest plot. Its a little harder read so it demands a fairly high attention span (and you’ll want to read it in as few sittings as possible, IMO) but its also an excellent and very clever story.

I’ll not opine on the convention break in The Woods…I don’t think it was actually a break, but couldn’t begin to explain myself without massive spoilers.


Donald A. Coffin 12.01.15 at 7:23 pm

Incidentally, in one of those pricing weirdnesses that occasionally come up, at Amazon, the paperback editions are more than $2 less than the ebooks…


Helen 12.02.15 at 12:22 am

Apologies Harry, I didn’t think a description of the unresolved subplot constituted a spoiler (being, you know, unresolved!)
I’ll try the next books in the series and hope she decides to come good with resolving that subplot.


P.M.Lawrence 12.02.15 at 7:49 am

“… the central protagonist of each book is different, and, after the first one, is typically someone who appeared in a less central role in a previous novel …”

Marion Zimmer Bradley used that technique.


merian 12.03.15 at 6:50 am

Thanks for the recommendation! I’m getting back into reading fiction (where did my time go?!), and this one’s in my library’s audiobooks collection, which means I can “read” while commuting.


mrearl 12.03.15 at 5:15 pm

The Likeness should bear a warning: “Abandon all disbelief, ye who enter here.” I did, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I mean, hey, it could happen?


Greg 12.04.15 at 9:59 pm

Re FN 1 – the general culture and what people care about. The quality of publicly available food has improved greatly in 30 years, as has the presence of Food on TV and in magazines. By contrast TV and probably movies are ever less dependent on novels. Two of the Top 10 in an airport bookstore last week were Adult Colouring books, with pencils.

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