Tana French’s novels are prized by connoisseurs of crime fiction. Readers who like their murders embedded in an evocative setting know she’ll give them the best and worst of Dublin. The books never skate lightly over their setting, like a cursor atop a pleasant screensaver. For French, place offers physical description, and also dictates the type of murder on offer.

The Wych Elm by Tana French

In order to explore the city, French created the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, and like an actor keen to play each role, she has moved from one narrator to the next, one detective to the next, over the course of six novels: In the WoodsThe LikenessFaithful PlaceBroken HarbourThe Secret PlaceThe Trespasser. The latest, The Wych Elm, is a departure of sorts. The narrator is not a detective, but rather an entitled young white man named Toby who sustains neurological damage after an assault by two burglars. Things get worse, as they usually do.

Over the course of our conversation, in a busy café in Dublin, French wanted to talk about the challenge of this new POV. We also drifted back to the past, to the books she inhaled as a younger reader, including another work that defies genre boundaries: The Secret History.

Crime has been good to French. Her books have sold millions of copies and some of the earlier novels are being made into a television series for the BBC. But French has been good to crime, too. Like Tartt, she wants more than mere murder. She examines what can unsettle any particular land, her own included.

 

Five Dials

When you’re talking about your books, and someone says, ‘Oh, they’re murder mysteries,’ do you ever have to say: ‘Well, I’m doing a bit more here’?

Tana

I’m aiming to do a bit more, definitely. I’m not a big believer in genre boundaries. Crime? ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘it’s got a gripping plot, but probably two-dimensional cliché characters, not great writing, no thematic depth.’ Literature? ‘It’s got all the themes, it’s got the great writing, but probably the plot is pretty boring and involves a lot of people staring out their windows in some deeply symbolic urban landscape.’

I don’t see why you couldn’t aim for all of it. If somebody’s reading this as crime, great. They can get enjoyment out of it. If they’re reading it as literature, great. And if they want to just take it on its own terms where there might be elements of both, that can work too.

One of the defining reading experiences for me was in college when I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. She absolutely refuses as a writer to take any shit about genre boundaries. There are no genre boundaries. This is one of the great mysteries of all time, but it’s also a great work of literature. She seemed to say, ‘Take this on its own terms. It’s got elements of both.’

I thought, OK. So you can do that? Wow, I didn’t know you could do that. There were a lot of writers who were going, ‘Okay, so there are options I didn’t even realize I had. I want to do that too.’

Five Dials

Where were you when you read it?

Tana

I was over visiting family in the US. I started it on the plane back. I got off the plane, went through passport control with my face in the book, got home, read straight through till I finished it, and I swear, you know the big reveal scene? I think the house could have burned down around me, and I wouldn’t have noticed.

It was about that intense defining moment in college where you’re moving away from your birth family, you haven’t developed a family of your own yet, and your friends are your surrogate family. I hadn’t seen that given weight before. I hadn’t seen anyone acknowledge that college friendships are that powerful and that intense, and high stakes enough that they can end up in murder.

I did a full-time acting course at Trinity. It was two years. It was very intensive and it was long, hard hours, and very physical. There was a sense of being part of some little esoteric group, people learning some arcana that others weren’t part of. That’s a lovely feeling, at that age. It’s powerful stuff.

Five Dials

When you survey the world, you must see possibilities. Donna Tartt saw possibility for murder in a classics department. Do you see similar possibilities elsewhere?

Tana

It’s not murder, though. It’s mystery. I like looking for the potential mystery in everything.

I remember being around six and reading a school book that included little comprehension pieces. One of them was on the Mary Celeste – the ghost ship that showed up drifting with nobody on board. ‘Breakfast was still cooking in the galley, and nothing was disturbed. Only the lifeboat was gone.’ I was enthralled. I remember lying there thinking, ‘Right, when I die, I’m asking God what happened.’

There’s an assumption that the process of investigating, even if you don’t solve it, has an inherent power and an inherent value.

So I’m looking for the potential mystery in just about everything, and it doesn’t have to be a murder mystery. How could this possibly be mysterious? Where could this take us? It’s a deep human instinct to be fascinated, and not just by mystery itself, not just by the answer – because if that was it, we would read the first chapter of a mystery novel and skip to the last. We’re fascinated by the process, by where that process takes us, and what we discover along the way. There’s an assumption that the process of investigating, even if you don’t solve it, has an inherent power and an inherent value. I’m looking for potential mysteries and what the process of solving them might entail.

Five Dials

How far do you have to stray from your own life to find these mysteries?

Tana

A lot of the ideas from my books have come from really banal stuff. Like Faithful Place. I was walking home and some old Georgian house was being cleared out to be renovated. There was a skip outside, and this old blue suitcase was among the crap on the skip. What if somebody left it there thinking they’d come back for it? Where could that take somebody, if they started pulling on that thread? Where might it lead them?

Broken Harbour was because we had mice.

Five Dials

And also because of Ireland’s ghost estates?

Tana

Those are inherently creepy. You don’t have to go looking for a mystery in them. They’re deeply frightening: what they say about us as people, what they say about our society, what we as a society are willing to buy into, what illusions we’re willing to believe out of desperation.

Those houses were charged up with some of the most frightening things underlying our society. I didn’t have to go looking there.

Five Dials

How would you explain the ghost estates of Broken Harbour to someone who doesn’t know about Ireland at that time?

Tana

They were born out of optimism. The housing bubble, I think, was very carefully manufactured, because in Ireland, politicians, bankers and property developers are very closely linked, to an extent that’s unhealthy and often illegal.

People were being told constantly, ‘Our house prices are only going to go up. You know what you need to do? You’ve got to get on the ladder now. What you should do is go out to some estate that hasn’t been built, where the ground hasn’t even been broken, and pay hundreds of thousands of euros for a house that’s nothing but a drawing on a page, because in five years, sure, you can sell it for a higher price to some other sucker.’ It was a massive Ponzi scheme.

Property is so deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche. We’ve got 700 years of English colonization. One of the ways that it was enforced was that the Irish couldn’t own property. So you were constantly at the landlord’s mercy, and you could be thrown out on the street for any reason. So it’s ingrained in us that you are never safe, ever, unless you own your home. People fell for this. ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got to go buy something in a field in the middle of nowhere. Otherwise we won’t be safe, because prices are going up.’ And of course this Ponzi scheme collapsed, because they do.

Property is so deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche. We’ve got 700 years of English colonization. One of the ways that it was enforced was that the Irish couldn’t own property.

People were left on half-built estates in the middle of nowhere. No street lighting, no public transport, no shops, no schools, no nothing. Just a handful of houses, many of which had huge construction problems. So your house is falling apart. It’s got cracks in the wall. You can’t sell it, because you’re hundreds of thousands into negative equity. There’s nothing you can do except stay there and wait, and hope that the bank doesn’t take even that away from you.

To me, that was terrifying. The devastation wasn’t just financial, it was psychological. I don’t know how you recover from something like that, when everything you’ve built your life on suddenly turns out to be not just non-existent, but actively destructive.

Five Dials

And – sadly – it was good for the novel. This phenomenon had a physical manifestation. These were estates that not only existed, but they could be used as a setting.

Tana

It’s a solid bricks and mortar socio-political commentary every time you go past one of those ghost estates.

I’m a big believer in the power of place, and I do wonder if that’s because of all my moving around, where each very different place that I lived became charged. I’m a big believer in places having that charge.

Five Dials

Does Dublin yield enough mystery for your novels?

Tana

Dublin was very fixed, population-wise, up until the mid-nineties. Ireland didn’t have much immigration, because who would move to Ireland, which was basically in a permanent recession? So everybody who lived here, their parents and their grandparents and their great-grandparents had lived here as well. It was a society that was very deeply rooted. And that’s absolutely enthralling to me, this idea of a neighbourhood – which I used in Faithful Place – a neighbourhood where families have been intertwining for hundreds of years. The relationships aren’t just coming out of nowhere. People are related in ways that go back generations and that may be positive or negative, but they’re solid and inescapable. Dublin and Ireland are full of neighbourhoods that have deep roots. That makes for rich settings for writing.

Five Dials

And dictates the kind of crime, too. If you’re murdering somebody in that environment, it’s different than in a transient city.

Tana

That’s why murder mysteries have a tendency to illuminate something about the society where they’re set, whether you mean them to or not. It seeps in, I guess. Murder happens everywhere, but the reasons it happens are completely informed by the time and place, by that society’s priorities and its tensions and its fears and its dark places. If you have somebody who shoots his wife for cheating on him, then you know instantly that you’re in a society where sexual fidelity is a thing. Even what we consider to be the simplest domestic murder is telling you something about that society.

Five Dials

Do the foreboding areas of Dublin change? Do certain places take on a new danger as the city changes?

Tana

I don’t think there’s anywhere that doesn’t have a potential layer of darkness in it. Everywhere has tensions.

Sometimes it’s more overt. That’s one kind of danger, but there are also the dangers in the calm, residential, peaceful, leafy suburbs where people have their own tensions and their own fears, and they’re fighting their own battles. They’re always going to have dark places and they’re always going to have things that are hard to cope with, and grief and anger and fear. Those exist in everyone, everywhere. No one’s exempt.

Five Dials

In your previous novels, you view a crime through the POV of the police officers. In the new book, The Wych Elm, you flip the perspective.

Tana

I’ve looked at criminal investigations through a detective’s eyes six times. But there are a lot of other people involved. There are witnesses, there are victims, there are suspects, there are perpetrators, and this whole process has to look completely different from their point of view.

When you’re looking at the investigation as a detective, all the procedural stuff is a source of power and control. It’s your way of re-imposing order on chaos. Whereas, from all those other perspectives, it has to be the exact opposite. The investigation is this thing that comes barrelling into your life, turns it upside down. You have no idea where it’s going to go. You have no control over it. You don’t know what the detectives are doing or why. Are you a witness? Are you a suspect? Who are you within this pattern?

I thought I should give a voice to those other perspectives, where you’re borne along by this process and you have to struggle and fight to find any kind of agency.

At various points in the book, Toby, the lead character, is all of those. He’s victim, he’s witness, he’s suspect, he’s perpetrator, and he shifts from all those perspectives. I definitely wanted to see it from the opposite angle.

Five Dials

The allure for the reader is that the detective is in charge. The detective detects. He or she has power. But when you flip the perspective, you feel closer to someone like Toby, because it’s happening to him as it could happen to you, if things ever went bad.

Tana

And he struggles with it. I didn’t want him to be just a passive character within this story. It weakens the book if your narrator is somebody to whom things just keep happening, and he just keeps receiving, rather than being a force within the story itself.

Five Dials

It’s also an interesting book to be reading right now. Here’s a middle-class white guy, with a definite sense of entitlement. It’s pointed out many times in the book that Toby is not like others. Was that conscious?

Tana

That’s what started the book. I was thinking about the relationship between luck and empathy, and how too much luck can stunt empathy. If you’ve been too lucky in one area, it’s easy to not be aware that other people might be experiencing a very different reality.

What about somebody who’s been lucky in every way? He’s got the right side of the coin flip all the way along. He’s white, he’s male, he’s straight. He’s from an affluent family. He’s mentally and physically healthy.

Five Dials

You get the feeling he can get away with things.

Tana

He’s good-looking. He’s charming. He’s had a stable childhood, a family who loves him. The world is basically set up to be Toby-friendly. It was very important to me to make him a good guy. He’s not nasty. There’s no malice in him. He’s the guy who’s just pulled every single ace along the way.

Five Dials

And you didn’t want a woman to play that role, say a white woman who’s everything but male?

Tana

If you’re not playing the game on the easiest difficulty setting in every way, then you’re going to be more aware that other people might have other difficulty settings.

Perhaps you’re a woman who has, pretty much on a daily basis, had your ideas dismissed in meetings or laughed at. If you get passionate about something you’re called hysterical or aggressive. You’ve been catcalled. You’ve been grabbed on buses, just all the daily stuff. You’re aware that the good, sound guys who would never do this kind of thing are completely oblivious to the fact that this is part of your daily experience. If you’re like that, you might think: ‘Hang on a second. I’m probably oblivious in the same way to the experience of others. Hang on a second, I can kiss my boyfriend in public, but my gay guy friends can’t do the same thing.’ Or, ‘Hang on a second, maybe I have a different experience of the police or trying to rent a flat than a black friend does.’

He had to be white and he had to be straight and he had to be middle class. If he wasn’t playing the game on the easiest setting in every way, it would make him much more likely to be aware of other people’s realities.

If you are daily being made aware of the fact that there are different difficulty settings, you’re more likely to be aware of that as it applies to other people. So he had to be male. And he had to be white and he had to be straight and he had to be middle class. If he wasn’t playing the game on the easiest setting in every way, it would make him much more likely to be aware of other people’s realities.

Five Dials

When you choose to move from the perspective of a detective to the perspective of a character like Toby, are there new limits and new freedoms?

Tana

It was a little bit scary, because in some ways it was much more like writing In The Woods. In all of the ones in between, I had already established the world of the Murder Squad. Although the other books are pretty much stand-alones, they have a certain amount of continuity. You know who the pathologist is, what size the squad is, how it works, the hierarchy. I couldn’t break that in the other books, which is good. It means I’ve got certain shortcuts established already. But it also means I can’t suddenly transform the entire Murder Squad into something different. Whereas in this novel, there are none of those parameters.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing the same book over. I don’t want to fall into that trap ever.

Five Dials

A lot of people do. I guess they have their reasons.

Tana

I’ll read those. I love reading those, the same book over and over, but I don’t actually want to write them.

Five Dials

One of the police officers in the new novel says that a lot of times he can tell what kind of mind he’s up against when investigating a murder. He can feel them out there. How do you go about matching those two sides: killer and detective? Is that something that you consciously think about when you’re approaching a new project?

Tana

Sort of, because they do have to be a good match. It’s one reason why I don’t do a series with the same narrator detective. I like writing about the big turning points for the narrator.

Five Dials

That makes me think of the Die Hard films. ‘Seriously? Again? How many Christmases in a row is this guy faced with an international terrorist situation?’

Tana

Somebody kidnapped another of Liam Neeson’s relatives? I don’t want to do that. The poor guy is going to be dumped into this massive life-changing situation every two years when my deadline comes along? No. He’d end up in a straitjacket by book three, end of story.

Somebody kidnapped another of Liam Neeson’s relatives? I don’t want to do that.

The only other way to stick with the same narrator is to back off with the life-changing situations and do what P. D. James does with Adam Dalgliesh. His sanity and future aren’t put in jeopardy every time. You’re watching him through the smaller ups and downs, as he goes through relationships and professional changes. I like those too, but they’re not what I want to write.

So I have to start from: this is going to be a case that is going to mess up the detective’s head. And the detective, or the narrator in this case, is the one person I usually have clear in my head before I start. The killer grows out of that. They’re going to be the person who will catalyze the detective’s process of change. So it is a match, but it’s a match starting from the narrator.

Five Dials

You’re calling forth this character on the other side?

Tana

Who’s going to prod the narrator forward, who’s going to have elements that will disturb whatever balance the narrator’s established. There are going to be elements of the killer, or elements of the killing, that amplify any cracks the narrator’s got, and bring their defences tumbling down.

Five Dials

A character emerges as an outline.

Tana

It’s like a Polaroid.

Five Dials

And because you choose to construct a new narrator each time, what is the enjoyment of passing the POV within a fixed group of people like the Murder Squad?

Tana

There are two main things, really. One is, I used to be an actor. I come from an acting background. I like playing different characters. I don’t want to keep playing the same character for years and years and years. But also, I’m fascinated by the way we can all see the same setting or the same series of events in very different ways: how different it looks from different perspectives, how different people are experiencing the same event. Where does the reality lie, in between all these people? Passing the torch of narration around gives me room to do that.

Five Dials

I thought of Mike Leigh when I read the other books. Mike Leigh has a corps of actors and he seems to say: ‘It’s your turn in this story to be the lead.’

Tana

They can step up to centre stage. I really like that. You may be sometimes a secondary character and sometimes the lead. We’re all the lead in our own story.

Five Dials

In a lot of the previous books, you use the jargon of policing. How do you collect this language? Do you pluck terms as they go by? Or did you at some point think, ‘I’ve got to know how people speak?’

Tana

I’m lucky to know a retired detective. He’s a talker as well, right? His brother was in drama school with my husband – it’s Dublin, basically everybody knows everybody somehow – and he’s great. And he’s so generous with his time. He tells me stories. And while I do have specific questions, there’s also stuff that I don’t even know I need to know. I pick up atmosphere and jargon and dynamics and hierarchies from those stories. I’m scrounging phrases and techniques and little subtleties.

Five Dials

Does he know how interesting his own life is? Some detectives seem to know that what they’re doing is the stuff of fiction.

Tana

I get the sense that he realizes how fascinating it is on a procedural level, how fascinating the process of investigating a mystery is, the magic of being part of some group that has its own arcana that nobody else fully understands. ‘What would you do in these circumstances? What lines of inquiry would you have? How would the forensic pathologist respond to this? What samples do you take?’ I think he realizes that this is fascinating. But I don’t think he really gets that, in this profound mythic way, the detective is this archetype of the searcher going after truth and order in a world of chaos. I don’t think he really thinks of it as that. For him, it’s a practical thing. ‘Somebody contaminated my blood sample.’

Five Dials

I wonder how effective you’d be as a detective if you were thinking on a mythical level.

Tana

He’s retired. He can afford to feel mythic about it if he wants to now.

Five Dials

That would probably be the worst partner to have: someone who’s feeling things mythically.

Tana

‘Pull it together. We need a hair sample.’ ‘Yes, but it symbolizes man’s quest for truth.’ ‘No, it doesn’t. It symbolizes that we’re all going to get fired if you don’t get it in that test tube.’

Sometimes I don’t stick to the reality. But I need to know what it is, so that if I move off from it, it’s not just because I shoved my foot in my mouth. There isn’t a Murder Squad in Ireland. But I wanted that elite, tight-knit hothouse feel where you’re all that little bit too close and it’s all a little bit too intense and what you’re doing is so important that it can become too highly charged. So I made a Murder Squad. It’s not that I thought there was one and screwed up. It’s that I decided that I needed one for narrative purposes.

Five Dials

Have they ever approached you and said, ‘That’s a great idea for Dublin’?

Tana

‘Dublin should totally have a murder squad?’ Not so far.

Five Dials

You’ve mentioned your love for books that have broken the form. Have other books acted as a template?

Tana

The Talented Mr Ripley. You only realize partway through, Oh my God, I’m rooting for the murderer, and not even a ‘good murderer’, whatever that is. Not somebody who killed a person who was threatening his family – no, he killed somebody because he fancied his life. But you root for him. Patricia Highsmith was all kinds of genre buster.

There are writers, including many of the greats, who approach the genre as an end point, as a finished thing. Let’s polish this sculpture to its absolute highest shine. Let’s perfect this. People like Agatha Christie. But then you also have the opportunity to use genre as a starting point rather than an end point. So it’s not like, ‘Let me get these conventions as brilliant as they can be.’ It’s, ‘What could I do with these if I tie them in a knot and build them into something else?’

I like conventions as a starting point. ‘What else could I do with it?’ Part of it may be timing. I felt that I came to the genre at a point where it had been polished to the highest shine.

Look at Kate Atkinson and Gillian Flynn – Gillian Flynn and I started very much around the same time. We’re going, ‘All right. So what next? What else can we do? What else is there room for?’ There will always be room.

Five Dials

Where do you think the form will go from here?

Tana

I heard somewhere that more and more crime books are being set retro, set a few decades in the past, because of those damn mobile phones. So much of the investigation process is technological. But the human interaction that makes us fascinated with crime books is being eroded away. You can track somebody. You don’t have to interview five people to find out where so-and-so was on the night of the 15th. You just track his phone.

The human interaction that makes us fascinated with crime books is being eroded away. You can track somebody.

A decade or two ago, if you want to know where Joe was on the night of the 15th, and you talk to his ex-girlfriend, and she says he wasn’t with her, is she lying because she wants to get him into trouble? Joe says he went past her house and she definitely saw him. Who’s lying? Whereas now: well, Joe’s phone says he wasn’t there.

It erodes the sense of mystery in everything, not just in the specific mystery. There isn’t that sense of reality being slightly flexible, having its own little nooks that you might never be able to clarify. It’s eroding our relationship with mystery.

I worry about whether our relationship with mystery is going to be truncated. We’re going to get more and more impatient with the idea that something might not have an immediate solution. I notice people are more dismissive of things that don’t have an easy answer. There seems to be a general movement towards being less and less willing to put time and thought into something that may not be capable of solution.

I wonder if there’s going to be a polarization: people who really have no patience for anything that isn’t on Google, versus people who crave that mystery.

Five Dials

Which side will you be on?

Tana

I like mystery.

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