SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to crime fiction queen Tana French about craft, the genre’s universal appeal and why Irish female crime writers are enjoying a moment …
Crime is everywhere. It’s on our bedside tables, inside our glove compartments, atop our deckchairs, in our carry-on luggage. The genre in its multiple shades of black – hard-boiled, police procedural, legal drama, psychological thriller, stylish noir – is perhaps the most commercially successful. In recent years, I’ve read far more crime fiction novels than ever before, particularly those masterminded by Irish female writers. Given this development, I contact global bestselling author Tana French for her take on the phenomenon. “Crime fiction always has a mystery at the heart of the plot. Most people are fascinated by mysteries – not just by the solution itself, but by the process of solving them. It’s one of the things that make us human; animals, in general, don’t care about mysteries for their own sake.” French’s writing career took off in 2007 with In the Woods, the first of her incredibly popular Dublin Murder Squad series. Her other five volumes are The Likeness (2008), Faithful Place (2010), Broken Harbour (2012), The Secret Place (2014) and The Trespasser (2016). The first two titles are being adapted for an RTÉ/BBC television production.
She has won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Barry Awards, the Los Angeles Times Award for Best Mystery/Thriller, and the Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction. While the series is sequential, each work is written from a different detective’s perspective, as opposed to a flagship hero chasing bad guys. Yes, there are character crossovers, but it’s not essential that you read the books in chronological order. “My favourite part is writing characters who are nothing like me,” she says. “The chance to get a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes, the realisation that other people experience life completely differently and that their viewpoint is as real and vivid and intense as your own. The part I like least is structuring. I don’t outline before I start writing. I figure it out as I go, which means that putting a coherent structure on the book tends to get complicated, frustrating, and full of rewrites when I realise something that changes everything I’ve already written.”
French’s life bears little resemblance to those of her characters. For a start, she’s a busy mother and wife who writes in the spare room of her home in Dublin. She grabs a scrap of time to answer my questions. Uppermost – why are Irish female crime authors having a such moment? “Crime fiction is one of the ways a society tries to understand its own dark places and secrets,” she tells me. “And Ireland has a lot of those. For so long, anything that didn’t fit the image of Ireland as an idyllic, super-Catholic society of comely maidens dancing at the crossroads was brutally suppressed and kept hidden, by force if necessary. Now those secrets are coming to light, and we’re trying to process them. And since women were and are the targets of so much of that suppression, it makes sense that so many women are focusing on that processing, including through crime fiction.”
Crime fiction is one of the ways a society tries to understand its own dark places and secrets.
Born in Vermont, French is a classically trained actress who grew up in the US, Malawi and Italy respectively. She eventually settled in Dublin, where she studied English and Drama at Trinity College. It wasn’t until her mid-30s that writing became a serious goal, but it’s plain to see that her practice of getting into character has served her craft well, particularly with her deftly delivered dialogue and sardonic wit. “Acting is great training for writing,” she says. “It’s basically the same skill: you’re aiming to create a real, three-dimensional character and then let the audience into that character so completely that they come away feeling that they know him or her inside out. If I write a line that I couldn’t say on stage, I know it needs to change.”
French’s first standalone novel, The Wych Elm, is less police procedural and more psychological thriller; the narrative thematically echoes her earlier explorations of trauma and long-term memory loss. It’s an interest she shares with Stephen King who, to her delight, recently sang her praises in The New York Times. “Stephen King was one of the novelists who had a big influence on me – I remember reading It when I was definitely too young and being terrified, not by the scary clown, but by the part when the now-adult main characters realise that their memories of some childhood event are being eroded by constant attacks. That idea of our minds not being inviolable, of them being vulnerable to attack and transformation, stuck with me.” The Wych Elm centres on 28-year-old Toby Hennessy who is savagely beaten by burglars in his apartment. Until that point, he’d been sheltered from life’s many shortcomings, and struggles to readjust. When he’s asked to mind his Uncle Hugo at their family’s ancestral home, it’s the perfect refuge – until a human skeleton is discovered inside a 200-year-old tree. Of her motivation behind the story, French says, “Most of us have been lucky in some areas and not in others, so we’ve got experience on both sides. I started wondering about someone who’d rolled straight sixes: white, male, straight, physically and mentally healthy, from an affluent and loving family, intelligent, good-looking. What would happen if his luck went wrong one day, and he found himself in a different world? Around the same time, my brother sent me a link to the story of Bella in the Wych Elm, a skeleton (still unidentified) found in a hollow tree in England in 1943. My favourite part of writing it was, as always, the narrator. Toby goes through a huge character arc over the course of the book, from cheerful, oblivious golden boy to dark, devastated wreck. That was a big challenge, and I like challenges.”
French is currently composing another novel, this time about “an American detective who has taken early retirement and gone to live in the West of Ireland – but a local boy wants the detective to find out what happened to his missing brother.” And for fans who want another Dublin Murder Squad book? “I’m sure I’ll go back to the Dublin Murder Squad sooner or later, but not yet. I never want to fall into the trap of writing the same book over and over, and that’s easy to do, especially if you’re writing in a sub-genre like procedural crime that has very clear parameters: A kills B, and then the detective narrator finds out whodunnit. I figure I need to take a break from that and come back to it with something new to say.”
The Wych Elm (€15.99, Penguin) is available nationwide.
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