- The Washington Times - Friday, July 9, 2010

By Tana French
Viking, $25.95
416 pages

If you are a connoisseur of the mystery novel, surely you already know about Tana French. If you don’t, lay hands on a copy of “In the Woods” with all possible haste and prepare for a dark, delicious treat. “In the Woods” (2007), Ms. French’s first novel, winner of innumerable literary prizes and a one-time denizen of several best-seller lists, upended the conventions of the detective novel with unsettling panache.

Though Ms. French herself is Irish and all of her novels thus far have been set in Dublin - and vibrantly steeped in the history and cadences of that city - her plots, particularly that of her first novel, evoke the nationality of her patronym and such irreverent (even maddening) French innovations of the mystery/thriller genre as Francois Ozon’s “Swimming Pool” or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “The Erasers.”

“Faithful Place,” Ms. French’s third novel, returns to much of the old ground of her first and best novel. It is in some sense the third in a series, as both “In the Woods” and “The Likeness” (Ms. French’s second novel), take as their protagonists detectives from Dublin’s most elite police squads, the murder and undercover units. Each novel has introduced as a minor character the protagonist of the next, and each novel has brought its police-detective protagonist face to face with the ghosts and demons of his or her past. In the case of Frank Mackey, a star on Dublin’s undercover police squad and the narrator-protagonist of “Faithful Place,” the ghost goes by the name of Rosie Daly.

The beautiful, vivacious, red-headed Rosie was Frank’s first love, and Ms. French’s deft narration of Frank’s recollections of her reveal (as Poe once put it) “a love that was more than a love”: an all-consuming, soul-scarring passion of youth - a love that still holds Frank under its spell more than 20 years after Rosie disappeared from his life.

Frank and Rosie had dreamed of more than Faithful Place, their depressed, working-class Dublin neighborhood. They had longed to escape their families (Rosie’s rigid, controlling “da”; Frank’s brutal, shiftless, alcoholic one). And so they had hatched a plan to elope - they’d packed their bags, bought ferry tickets to England, and set a secret midnight date just before Christmas in 1985 to set off together. Only Rosie never showed up.

And so for 20-some years, Frank has believed that Rosie took off without him - that she thought better of making a new life with him and headed to England alone. Abandoned by his beloved, Frank nonetheless makes good on his plan to leave home and, without a word to his dysfunctional family, begins a new life across Dublin, cutting off all contact with his family and becoming something his fiercely clannish family and neighborhood detest: a police detective. He has made good, as he planned, gotten out - even married a smart, refined girl from a wealthy family and had a daughter with her, though he’s divorced and at odds with his ex-wife as the novel opens.

It’s hard not to be charmed by Frank Mackey, who’s equal parts brogue and noir: confident and mordantly wisecracking, a little bruised and delicate in places, amiably boorish, not much for following the rules. He might be straight out of the hard-boiled imagination of James M. Cain but for his Irish accent and idioms. Walking into a gathering in his old neighborhood after 20 years, Frank recognizes all of the faces in the room but finds them uncannily altered: “They all looked like some makeup artist’s shot at the Oscar, hanging jowls and extra bellies and receding hairlines superimposed obscenely over the faces I knew.”

Frank has returned to confront the old neighborhood and the faces of the past (a “surreal psych-ops gauntlet”) because Rosie Daly’s suitcase - including two unused ferry tickets to England - turns up in the chimney of an abandoned, derelict house on Faithful Place, just a few yards from where Frank and Rosie were set to meet the night she didn’t show up. Rosie, Frank concludes, never made it out of the Place.

With the revelation that Rosie didn’t abandon him and something much worse seems to have become of her, Frank is forced to confront what remains of the Faithful Place he once knew: his father, still nasty and still pickling himself with gin (though too frail to beat his wife and children anymore); his hard, careworn mother; his older brother, who still resents him for running off; his childhood friends and neighbors, many a bit worse for their stints on the dole, teenage pregnancies and lost youth.

Yuppies may have moved into Faithful Place (the novel is set just before the Dublin housing market crashed) but the Place of Frank’s youth - of outdoor plumbing; cabbage-and-bacon dinners and Sunday Mass; too many to a bed; of lives begun and ended on the dole and in a five-block radius - lies just below the slightly gentrified surface.

Ms. French has Cain’s uncanny gift for first-person narration and the delineation of sharp, distinctive characters - as well as the noir-ish preference for moral ambiguity. She also has a superb ear for dialogue and the rhythms of colloquial speech (a gift that favors Irish writers - think Frank McCourt, Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle). Ms. French is also acutely conscious, as the best writers of police fiction always are, that the detective is sometimes a hallucinatory double of the criminal he hunts and that in pursuit of the truth, the police officer often reveals an outlaw’s taste for deceit, violence and manipulation.

All of this is true of Frank Mackey, who seems increasingly sinister and increasingly unreliable as a narrator as the novel progresses. Frank’s too-intimate involvement in the case of Rosie Daly blinds him to crucial truths even as it helps him gather the sad, secret histories that led to her disappearance.

While it is a basic readerly instinct to trust the first-person narrator, especially when he’s a police detective, in Ms. French’s novels, the detective-narrators are as much the sources of mystery and danger as they are bringers of light, order and law to the dark world of crime, and the endings are not tidy returns to peace and order.

Those who read for the plot may be disappointed by “Faithful Place,” but those who value psychological complexity and vivid characterization, who aren’t afraid to have their generic expectations turned inside out, who like their thrillers with a strong regional and literary savor, owe themselves the pleasure of Tana French.

Emily Colette Wilkinson, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., was the 2008 winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Young Reviewer’s Contest.

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