Viking, 464 pages, $27
“The Trespasser” — what proves to be a clever title — is the latest in an illuminating, mysterious, ever-changing “series,” set in Dublin, Ireland, by an author/actress who has lived in Ireland for a long time. Let’s unpack that information. Tana French has written five prior books. After the first book, “In the Woods,” each book featured a subsidiary character from one of the prior books. The connection is that the characters are all Dublin Murder Squad detectives. To the best of my memory, each book has a first-person narrative, so there is a variety of voices: men, women, younger, older, from different social, economic, and educational levels. I’m guessing her acting ear and eye acutely capture the nature of whatever form her central character takes.
Also, the tenor of her books varies. That’s a hard one to pull off, too. French’s focus isn’t necessarily just on who committed the murder, it is also about the mystery of life, nature, and the spiritual. Supernatural or mythical elements are sometimes hinted at, sometimes poetically envisioned. For instance, “The Secret Place” has some fantastical elements. However, “Faithful Place” has both feet in the everyday, but not ordinary, world. “The Trespasser” also is grounded, captured by French’s transcendent language. Her books range from depicting a world of the poor, betrayed by Ireland’s financial crisis, to the world of the elite in a boarding school. French seems at home in each.
I also found this quote an interesting insight into French’s writing. From an interview with the British newspaper, The Guardian, in 2014, French said: “I like writing about those big turning points in a character’s life, those crossroads where you know that whatever you choose, life is going to be defined by it.” It is remarkably apt for “The Trespasser.”
In “The Secret Place,” French’s last book, Murder Squad-wannabe Stephen Moran took the lead voice as he assisted detective Antoinette Conway. This time around, eight months after events of “The Secret Place,” detectives Moran (yes, he was promoted) and Conway catch what appears to be an open-and-shut domestic violence murder, and the action is seen through Conway’s eyes.
We quickly learn about the tight connection between Conway and Moran and also about Conway’s discomfort in the squad. Before Moran, she was the newest member and felt shunned. She has a hair-trigger temper, a loner mentality (breached sometimes only by Moran), a prickly nature, and a different view of the world. Stuck on the night shift, Conway and Moran catch a last-minute call-out. The body of Aislinn Murray, a young, attractive, single woman, has been found, her head apparently bashed in both by a strike to her face and a fall on her hearth.
Her nervous suitor, Rory Fallon, had been invited to Aislinn’s home for dinner the night before. He got no answer when he rang the doorbell and so he walked home, he says. Slam-dunk, says the seasoned Garda detective, Don Breslin, assigned to them as a watchdog/mentor. Book him, he urges. Conway and Moran are on the same wavelength, and there are enough little signs that they decide to provide a heartier investigation. Because the squad already views them disdainfully, they begin to carry on their inquiries surreptitiously.
Although they work well together, the cracks appear in Conway and Moran’s relationship and the detective partnership may not survive the stress of where Aislinn’s story may take them. Conway hates “what if” scenarios and Moran likes to speculate and follow those threads. Conway has her own personal demons, which are revealed in sometimes surprising fashion. (Love that about French’s plotting!)
French creates wonderful suspects and witnesses who bloom as the story goes along. None of them should be taken at face value. The early part of the book pretty much lulls us along on a standard plotting route, although French’s writing prevents it from slipping into the doldrums. Dead woman, suspicious suitor, crazy friend, dysfunctional family life, pressure to close the case. But wait, there’s much, much more. For a moment, assume that the suspicious suitor is not nervous because he murdered Aislinn. Assume the crazy friend is not crazy. Given her ordinary demeanor and attitude up until just a couple of years ago, what turned Aislinn into a beauty and femme fatale? Ah, now French is off and running.
Here are samples of French’s never-dull writing:
“Me and my partner are finishing up another night shift, the kind I used to think wouldn’t exist on the Murder Squad: a massive scoop of boring and a bigger one of stupid, topped off with an avalanche of paperwork.”
“I get a sudden nasty feeling like the trees behind us have snapped together and come down, with a silent roar and a smash of branches, onto the spot where we were parked.”
“The computers and the whiteboard and the floaters billow and shrink around the edges like thin fabric under water, drifting father away all the time.”
It’s a Tana French party and you are invited.
P.S. So the game is to guess who the next lead character will be. I nominate Fleas, Conway’s former police academy mate who is now an undercover agent.