I feel a little bad this review, because these are excellent novels that deserve more than the fly-by treatment I’m about to give them. But I read these months ago, and I’m barely managing to accomplish a half Cannonball this year because writing reviews just isn’t happening for me lately.
I have had the Dublin Murder Squad books on my TBR for some time, prompted by the positive reviews of many Cannonballers. Amusingly (to myself), putting the series out of mind for several years led to me completely forgetting what they actually were by the time I got them from the library, and I started reading them with the notion that they were supernatural mysteries. Point of information: they are not.
But — you’d be forgiven for getting the creepy crawlies anywyay, because Tana French’s writing creates this uncanny feeling that the characters are inside you, haunting you. They’re all a little bit (or in some cases, a lot) damaged in familiar ways. The mystery central to each book is tailor-made to gnaw at that protagonist’s particular flaws and insecurities, and the ways that they imperfectly deal with these personal challenges are so achingly human. Practically speaking, these are mysteries where detectives investigate murders, but the real meat of the books are the character profiles of the detectives themselves. I read the first five in the series, and will read the sixth, but I needed a break, because they’re great, but they’re heavy.
In the Woods is fucked up emotionally. Detective Rob Ryan is a slow-motion car crash, and even though he starts his retrospective narration with the warning that this is the story of how things went very badly, it still doesn’t prepare you for the destructiveness of his complete implosion. I, quite frankly, lack the energy and ability to convey the impact of this book. There is so much behind the inevitable tailspin, such backstory and trauma, and an incredible complexity of the psyche that French portrays so deftly. I’m having actual trouble composing simple thoughts to discuss it, because an interpretive summary of something this densely layered should be done thoughtfully or not at all. I want to fall back on a simple emotion and an easy judgement when it comes to Rob, because it means putting myself through quite a bit less emotional stress, but there isn’t anything simple or easy about why Rob is the way he is. This story requires you to confront biases about how we classify and label human behavior, and it demands that you consider the context behind actions you’d otherwise put down to deceptively simple motives.
The shockwaves of Rob’s self-destruction impart a new trauma onto his partner, Cassie Maddox. In The Likeness, she’s working alone on a new case that takes her undercover and takes over her life. You don’t need to read In The Woods to read The Likeness; it’s a stand-alone, but it’s a fact nonetheless that there is a direct, indelible line between what she experienced in the first book and her actions in this one. In her underground role, Cassie experiences true belonging in a seemingly indestructible group of friends who are suspects in a murder. After the loss of her former best friend in Rob, the case is both seductive and cruel. The line between Cassie and the identity she’s assuming is razor-thin, and being convincing in her role requires that she genuinely befriends and cares about the people she’s investigating. As with Into the Woods, there’s so much more going on than a person becoming too close to their case. Cassie is in actual danger, not just from possible proximity to a murderer, but because the allure of the life her identity is a threat to her sense of self.
All of the books that come next feature characters that were introduced in the previous books, but none in my opinion are so closely linked by consequence as the first two. Faithful Place features Frank Mackie, the lead detective that oversaw Cassie’s role in The Likeness. He returns home after new evidence is found from an old disappearance, and while he’s looking into that, a new, related death occurs. Both cases affect Frank intimately: the person who went missing all those years ago was his girlfriend when they were both teenagers, and they had meant to run away together before she disappeared. The new death is also close to him, and while officially, he’s not working, his involvement is inevitable: he can’t not do his own investigating. It’s instinctual, and it’s the mystery that defines his own life. In the way of the books that came before, Faithful Place is partly about the cases, but it’s so much more about cracking open Frank’s relationships with his family and studying the damage. To Frank, they’re better left in the past with the ghost of his girlfriend, and until he gets closure from that disappearance he’s unwilling and unable to have them in his life. Working on the case is the pathway toward healing those broken bonds.
Broken Harbor comes across like the one that’s most focused on the straightforward mystery, but even that is making a statement about its main character. Detective Kennedy is a by-the-book guy who is single-mindedly focused on his work and whose driving motivation is giving off the appearance of a competent, respected detective. He doesn’t have a high solve rate for no reason: he’s observant and smart, and he will work as hard and as long as he has to in order to get the solve. But he’s also inflexible, and his rigidity led to him botching the murder case he was working in Faithful Place. The assignment in Broken Harbor is a chance for redemption, if only he can learn from his mistakes… which isn’t always an easy thing for anyone to do, and it’s especially not easy when you haven’t even gotten so far as to acknowledging your mistake in the first place. Kennedy needs to get the new case right, not just for the obvious reasons like the general good of solving a shocking murder and for the improvement to his reputation, but also because the investigation forces him to interrogate his own convictions and evaluate himself and his moral code with brutal honesty.
Secret Place adopts a new format, jumping around between points of view along a non-linear timeline. A boy was murdered at the brother institution of St Kilda’s, the school Frank Mackey’s daughter Holly attends. The first investigation had gone cold, but was re-opened when a note was posted on an anonymous board at St Kilda’s called “the Secret Place,” with a claim that the poster knew who killed the boy. The present-day investigation is basically a bottle episode, while the book also goes back in time, following Holly and her group of best friends and slowly revealing everything that happened in the months leading up to the murder. It’s clear to the detectives that Holly and her friends know more than they are letting on, but thanks in no small part to Holly’s familiarity with law enforcement via her father, they know how to evade and lie with enough plausible credibility to avoid focused suspicion. This book tugs at the nostalgia of teenage friendships, especially those among girls, with that all-consuming promise of lifetime commitment to each other and the extreme loyalty that goes beyond the lines of adult good sense. It also nails the angst of being misunderstood, and the duality of confidence and insecurity of that age.
All of the books are heartbreaking, and each in their own way. You grieve for the people who damage themselves and others. The murders themselves are just the beginning — they’re the most obvious source of tragedy, but even the detectives, who are supposed to be professionally unaffected by such things, bring so much of themselves to the work that the cases impact them no less. The humanity spilling out of these books is overwhelming. All of the characters are only trying to do good, the way they understand good to be, but with none of us being completely objective about the things that matter to us, they make mistakes that put themselves in their own way and damage their perspectives and future decision-making. It’s all so painfully relatable.