- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2018


By Tana French

Viking, $28, 528 pages

There’s nothing like a good mystery to distract from a wrenching news cycle. And the award-winning Tana French does not disappoint with her latest, “The Witch Elm,” a novel powered not by one but three mysteries, and the deft narrative skills of its author.

Ms. French, a Vermont-born writer who has lived in Ireland since 1990, gets down to business quickly. Her protagonist, Toby, inadvertently becomes part of a minor art scam at work that he fears will cost him his job. Thereafter, his apartment is raided by two masked burglars who escape with his computer, TV and other valuables, but not before leaving Toby severely injured. And then there is the matter of the human skull found at his uncle’s house, where Toby heads after a prolonged hospital stay for further recovery.

Although pursuing clues to the burglary bears the hallmarks of a traditional whodunit, complete with two detectives named Gerry Martin and Colm Bannon (Flashy Suit), the art shenanigans and the mysterious appearance of the skull in particular give Ms. French the opportunity to excavate the interior lives of her main characters, her singular gift. While the plot hinges on the unraveling of the mysteries, the book also pores over the deeper matters of human desire and its limits.

“I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person. I don’t mean I’m one of those people who pick multi-million euro Lotto numbers on a whim, or show up seconds too late for flights that go on to crash with no survivors. I just mean that I managed to go through life without any of the standard misfortunes you hear about.”

Toby’s words that open the novel reveal much about how the novel will proceed. It is Toby’s voice that guides the tale, with all its charming cadence and understated self-consciousness. But just as there are limitations to any first-person narrative, there are limits to what Toby is able to see. He has no way of knowing, for example, that his life as it is revealed here is affected by vicissitudes that are more than a little different from “the standard misfortunes you hear about,” to put it mildly.

There is death and violence and darkness in these pages. The moment Toby’s apartment is raided and he is assaulted makes for tense reading, and there’s no escaping its raw engagement. Recalling the attack, Toby says, “His thumb stabbed into my eye and I yelled and then something hit me in the jaw, blue-white light splintered everywhere and I was falling.”

And, the discovery of the skull bears some mention because of the power and poetry of its discovery. Toby recalls:

“Zach and Sallie [Toby’s young cousins] were sanding at the bottom of the garden. Both were rigid, arms out in shock, and by this time both of them were screaming. Sallie’s piercing inhuman high note rising above Zach’s ragged howls. My feet thumping on the ground, my breath loud in my ears. Wave of birds lifting from the trees. And on the bright green grass in front of Zach and Sallie a brown and yellow object that, although I had never seen a real one in my life, I understood without the need for a single thought was a human skull.”

And there is the matter of the 200-year-old wych elm that is the centerpiece of the book and for which it is named. Here’s how Toby describes his uncle Hugo among the trees: “I spent a while looking up at elms last night,” he said, between sips of coffee. “I’d never thought much about them before, but it seemed inappropriate to know nothing about them now, somehow. Did you know that the Greeks believed there was one at the gates of the Underworld?”

This is a compelling book in which Ms. French takes care to examine all events from many angles. Carefully plotted and expansive, (it weighs in at over 500 pages) it cannily builds toward the revelations of each of the mysteries, tidily wrapping things up by its end.

A few quibbles. Law enforcement officers and detectives are by and large intrusive forces, seemingly peripheral to the solution of real crimes. Toby’s girlfriend, Melissa, is too consistently and one-dimensionally sweet, though she does manage to rally in parts.

Otherwise, the character development is strong and persuasive, particularly the depiction of Toby’s relationship with his mother, which is smart, funny and complex. Readers will be challenged to figure out who did what to whom and will be gratified by what is discovered. The “Dubliny” conversations and observations give the book rhythm and depth, and the lavish descriptions of family ties and family rituals ring true. These add richness and heart to this very human if not humane tale.

• Carol Herman is deputy editorial page editor and books editor at The Washington Times.

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