The Wych Elm review: Tana French and a skeleton in the closet mystery

The Wych Elm
Tana French
Viking, $32.99

Irish mystery author Tana French has earned a cult following for her unique brand of psychological acuity, intimate evocations of Dublin, and dazzling use of language. The Wych Elm is her first departure from her "Dublin Murder Squad" series, in which each novel is narrated by a different detective from the preceding book. Here, the tables are turned: Toby Hennessey, the narrator, is a suspect in a murder case, and the police are sidelined. The main investigating detective, Inspector Rafferty, is something close to a real villain, a menacing, relentless minor figure with an unsettling lack of moral guidance.

In Tana French’s novel, a skull is found in the hollow of a wych elm.
Credit:blickwinkel / Alamy Stock Photo

The Wych Elm takes the idea of the family "skeleton in the closet" and makes it shockingly literal: not an actual closet, in this case, but an ancient tree at the bottom of an overgrown garden. The garden belongs to a rambling Victorian pile on the outskirts of Dublin affectionately known as "The Ivy House" by the narrator and his cousins, Susanna and Leon. They spent their summers at the house together as children, overseen by their benign Uncle Hugo who has lived there forever. The cousins are now in their twenties and Uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer.

When Hugo brings the family together to discuss the future of the house, his great-nephew makes a gruesome discovery: a skull, hidden in the hollow of the enormous wych elm. The police arrive with axes and shovels. As the garden is dug up and destroyed, the Hennessey family history and relationships are similarly turned inside out in the search for answers.

Author Tana French.

Fans of the Murder Squad novels might miss that sharp evocation of the dynamics between police partners and colleagues, the compelling counterpoint between the case and the detective's own usually falling-apart life. But The Wych Elm offers all French's trademark literary fireworks, the questing, compulsive search for language that will convey the highest pitch of feeling, where one metaphor is never enough: "I think my luck was built into me," Toby tells us, at a time when all that luck has run out, "the keystone that cohered my bones, the golden thread that stitched together the secret tapestries of my DNA; I think it was the gem glittering at the fount of me, colouring everything I did and every word I said."

French is drawn towards male narrators with an inflated sense of their own superiority, and privileged young PR executive Toby is the most seemingly shallow of all her creations. Soon after the story begins, he is attacked in a burglary and beaten nearly to death. The ensuing psychological and physical trauma annihilates his confidence, his easy charm, and the physical capacity he took for granted, replacing the person he thinks he knows with a stammering, weakened nervous wreck unable to sleep in his own flat. By the time the skull is discovered in the wych elm, he has moved back to the nostalgic haven of the Ivy House – ostensibly to support Hugo through his illness, although Toby is the one who needs to be healed.

French's plots tend to be clever, and The Wych Elm has plenty of surprising twists. But the murder in her stories often feels like a vehicle for a far more powerful plot as her narrator unravels the terrifying mystery of the self, and finds themselves unravelling along the way.

Like Adam Ryan, the narrator of French's brilliant debut, In the Woods (2007), Toby becomes hostage to a mind not entirely his own, a memory so damaged that he can trust almost nothing he remembers about his past. His tentative investigations quickly become frightening, as he plays sleuth in a murder mystery in which he does not know whether he will himself turn out to be the culprit. Excavating the past not only reveals forgotten events and actions, but also shows Toby a different version of his teenage years than he remembers. He was not the "good guy" he has always smugly believed himself to be; he barely knows the cousins he thought he was so close to, and failed them completely when it really mattered.

The Wych Elm by Tana French.

Other writers might turn this material into a fable of redemption, but that has never been French's style. She is more interested in the dynamics of tragic dissolution than therapeutic resolution. Late in the story the three cousins discuss the seeming breakdown of one of their high school peers: "Maybe it was more like he didn't break," Susanna remarks; "he just broke open, and you could see what was inside."

French cracks open her characters with cool precision, revealing their secrets and flaws to themselves and others, chronicling the devastation as one by one their illusions are stripped away.

Kirsten Tranter's most recent book, Hold, is published by Fourth Estate at $27.99

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