The two starting points for inspiration on this book are Who Put Bella in the Witch Elm? and the idea of: what if your protagonist was a guy who has never had to work hard for anything in his life? And then you swirl those ideas around for a while in your brain, and out pops a kernel of an idea, which becomes this book. To be clear, this book does not engage at all with the mystery of Bella, just takes the idea of finding the skull in the elm and runs with that in an entirely different context.
Our main character is Toby, and the book begins with him happy and healthy and in full form. Well, actually our narrator is Toby from the future, so it’s Toby telling us about when he was happy and healthy and in full form. We see him at his job (in which he’s a bit slimy), and with his friends, and with his girlfriend. And then we see him get brutally attacked in a break-in, and his life is changed forever. While he’s recovering, his family asks him to move in to care for his uncle Hugo, who is dying of a brain tumor. Events proceed from there.
I can definitely see why people aren’t making it past the initial part of this book because Toby isn’t a super fun dude to be in the head of, even if that’s the point. He’s an unreliable narrator, but not in the cliche way we’ve seen from a lot of thrillers lately (cough unstable alcoholic woman cough). He’s unreliable in the sense that a straight white man who’s never had to really think outside his own experience is unreliable. It’s really kind of masterful (of course it is, it’s Tana French), but it’s also not *pleasant*. It is, however, interesting, and I found it engaging. I thought it was interesting the whole way through, because Toby really does have a traumatic experience that is completely relevant to his arc, but the mystery itself really kicks off about 1/3 of the way through. It ends up being a slowburn mindfuck from the perspective of one of the suspects in a murder rather than the detectives.
Anyway, if you like French definitely read this, she’s still on form.