Tana French’s ‘The Witch Elm’ Has an Implausible Protagonist

It’s Just Not The Same Without The Dublin Murder Squad

Tana French’s loosely-linked series of stand-alone books follow the investigations of the Dublin Murder Squad. They’ve won deserved acclaim for their genre-busting psychological tension and dark humor. Seriously, if you haven’t read them, treat yourself. The publicity touts her new novel, The Witch Elm, as a departure from her previous police procedurals.  But it actually extends the franchise, as well as adds something more. This time, French tells the story of a crime from the victim’s perspective rather than the cop’s. A complex meditation on memory, guilt, and death emerges, with a lot of timely soul-searching into the roots of toxic masculinity.

At the outset of the book, Toby Hennessy is nobody’s victim. With a doting girlfriend, a promising career doing PR for a buzzy art gallery, a supportive family, loyal mates, and endless reserves of natural charm, he’s always been able to talk his way out of any problem. Ireland’s economic upswing may mask lingering class conflicts, but Toby’s always had the right accent, the right school, the right car, the right neighborhood.

But after two burglars break into his flat and beat him to a pulp, Toby wakes up in the hospital looking like “the lowlife in the zombie movie who isn’t going to make it past the first half-hour.” Mentally and physically broken, he retreats to Ivy House, the posh home of his elderly bachelor uncle, Hugo. There, he recuperates under the watchful eye of his sweetheart of a sweetheart, Melissa. They, in turn, care for Hugo, slowly but steadily declining from an inoperable brain tumor.

Toby, looking droopy

Although Toby convinces himself that he’s covering it well, it becomes increasingly clear that he’s not the man he used to be, and may never be again. Suffering from slurred speech, a droopy eyelid, a gamey leg, and an alarmingly patchy memory, he’s also got a raging case of PTSD. This makes him uncharacteristically bad-tempered and paranoid. Drugs are no longer an occasional recreational pastime but a constant crutch. It’s an abrupt comedown for someone who’s always sailed through life on his good looks, quick wits, and what Toby describes as “luck”. His less fortunate peers (notably Melissa and his two cousins, a woman and a gay man) easily recognize this as upper-middle-class white-male privilege, even if Toby doesn’t. For the first time, words fail him. The cozy well-being he’s always taken for granted—“a satisfying sense that everything was going exactly as it should”—ends up being just another elusive memory.

The isolated, hermetic setting of Ivy House feels straight out of Agatha Christie. In classic murder-mystery fashion, the reader soon gets confronted with a second, more serious crime: a long-dead body. Are they connected? Family secrets come out that cause Toby to question his own motives and culpability. “Even when most other stuff had gone by the wayside, I had hung onto the idea that at least I was a decent guy.” But is he really one of the good guys after all? Toby may be smart, but he’s not Dublin Murder Squad smart.

When homicide detectives pop in to question him, deploying their own roguish charm, he doesn’t realize the cops are running rings around him. He’s not just in a diminished state, he’s incapable of comprehending the banality of evil and his own complicity. Nevertheless, Toby persists in his personal investigation, because the scariest option is that the attack on him was completely random. Unable to accept that, he repeatedly relives the night of the attack wracking his fractured memory for clues. Better to be a suspect, or hapless amateur sleuth, than a “contemptible useless fucked-up victim.” Despite all his advantages, he’s as vulnerable and fragile as anyone else.

Although the eventual payoff to the framing mystery—who attacked Toby, and why?—is worth waiting for, by that time the book has waded into murkier waters, and the resolution ultimately proves unsatisfying. The charming narrator is not just unreliable but brain-damaged; a frustrating state for Toby, but much more so for the reader. While French portrays his mental impairment and difficult recovery realistically and sympathetically, Toby’s memories and false memories come and go at inconvenient or maybe all-too-convenient times, dragging out an already bloated story clocking in at more than 500 pages.

Ivy House is less atmospheric and seductive than French thinks, and Toby’s forgone fate starts to feel implausible. By the end of this twisty tale, the twists come too fast and thick to make an impact, and end up being simply exhausting. But Toby’s fall from innocence—in every sense of the word—to horror-struck remorse hits home. A lifetime of small acts of thoughtlessness and boys-will-be-boys rationalizations add up to a crime so heinous that all the luck in the world can’t save him.

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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