TANA FRENCH HAS BEEN breaking the conventions of the mystery genre since 2007, when her debut novel, In the Woods, did something unexpected, some would say unforgivable. Whether you loved it or hated it, you remembered it because even her first time out, it was clear that she was a major talent with a tremendous career ahead of her.
French went on to write five more books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, all of them sprinkled through with the kind of ambiguity that was becoming her trademark: not every question is answered, not every case has a satisfying resolution, there are hints of supernatural phenomena left unexplained, and she always leaves you wanting more. Her unorthodox approach extends to the series in toto — rather than building it upon a single character, each book features a different detective at the POV-helm, each time cheerfully breaking the hearts of fans who’ve formed attachments to one detective or another. These attachments are verifiable — howled across social media platforms — readers declaring their favorites as loyally as any boy band fan, thrilled if “theirs” makes an appearance in a later book (me, I’m team Mackey). For French, the characters have always been as important, perhaps even more important, than the crime, and her detectives are more than just cookie-cutter stereotypes there to get the job done. They are achingly flawed, human, complex; the kinds of authentically realized characters worthy of a reader’s teen-scream allegiance.
What’s the next logical step for an author so keen to keep readers on their toes; what’s Tana French’s version of a canvas-shredding frame? It’s The Witch Elm: a standalone title more psychological suspense than procedural — a murder mystery without a corpse for more than 150 pages, and an unreliable narrator who is both victim and suspect, as flawed and human as any of French’s previous characters. But this time, no one’s fighting to make him “theirs.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Toby Hennessy is not a hero for our times. In a day and age in which we’ve become perfectly comfortable rooting for the villains in our entertainment, he’s not even an antihero for our times. He’s something stickier — a contemporary archetype all too familiar to anyone with an eye on the news cycle: the privileged man facing the consequences of his actions for the first time ever, forced to take a personal inventory, shocked to find flaws tarnishing his sparkle.
The book opens with a statement perfectly capturing Toby’s brand of blasé entitlement: “I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person […] Not that I spent much time thinking about this, but when it occurred to me, it was with a satisfying sense that everything was going exactly as it should.”
“Luck” to him is having never experienced significant loss or hardship prior to the events in the book, but it is more intrinsic than that: Toby is a young, attractive, straight white male from an affluent family. He’s educated, he has a good job doing PR and marketing at a prestigious art gallery, and he’s three years into a relationship with his effervescent, devoted girlfriend Melissa. A life without obstacles has given him confidence and an easy charm, and so far, he’s been able to talk his way out of any trouble that’s come his way.
In fact, “talking his way out of trouble” is what Toby is celebrating the night his life takes its tragic turn. After a serious lapse in judgment at work is discovered by his boss, Toby has spent the week on tenterhooks waiting to hear if he’s going to be fired. He manages to smooth things over with lies and promises and gets off with a reprimand, although his less fortunate, equally complicit colleague has been unceremoniously let go. Toby spends the evening at a pub with the boys, “giddy” with “triumph,” “light-headed and bubbling with relief.” His pleasure at his own close call is somewhat dampened by the unexpectedly heated response when he tells his friends the story, particularly from Declan, who is disgusted by Toby’s obliviousness to his own privilege. Dec came up working poor, and when the boys were at school together, there had been a similar incident: both had been caught in a schoolboy prank, and while Dec was suspended for three days, Toby only got one day of detention.
Toby barely remembers the episode, but it has stuck with Dec, who recognizes in these two incidents a pattern of preferential treatment that is less about some ineffable notion of “luck,” and more about economic disparity; that having a safety net of family money makes a huge difference in outcome when called before an authority deciding one’s fate: “[Y]ou didn’t go in desperate. You didn’t go in panicking. You went in knowing that, no matter what happened, you’d be grand. And so you were grand.”
Toby dismisses Dec as drunk, dramatic, having a chip on his shoulder, and although he’s half-joking with intoxication’s bravado with his claims that he’s able to coast out of punishment because he’s a “prince among men” and “a charmer,” he’s dead serious when he asserts, “The recession’s over; there’s no reason for anyone to be stuck in the muck unless they actually choose to be,” which lack of social awareness stuns Declan. “You haven’t got a clue, man,” says Dec. “You actually haven’t got a clue.”
Which is true enough, but Toby is about to learn firsthand how it feels to be on the other side of the luck and fortune spectrum: that night, he is brutally beaten in his flat by two burglars and sustains serious injuries, including a severe head trauma that affects his memory. He’s hospitalized and unable to assist the detectives who come to question him about the attack, who don’t seem to be too optimistic about finding the culprits.
Toby is left physically altered after the attack — he has a limp, weakness in his hand, facial bruises, a drooping eyelid, a chipped front tooth, his head has been partially shaved by the surgeon, he slurs his words — he looks and sounds nothing like the confident golden boy he’s always been. Ashamed of the visible signs of his diminishment, he tries to downplay the extent of the less apparent mental and psychological symptoms: the PTSD, migraines, muddled thoughts, visual and olfactory hallucinations, paranoia, rage, aphasia, memory loss, and an increasing dependence on Xanax.
He’s been transformed by the experience — his entire sense of who he is shaken to the core. Having never developed the emotional muscle memory required to overcome … anything, the loss of “that guy whom I had every right to be and who was gone for good” affects him at the most fundamental level of his self-image: “At the dark heart of the horror was the knowledge that it was inescapable. The thing I couldn’t bear wasn’t burglars or blows to the head, wasn’t anything I could beat or evade or set up defenses against; it was myself, whatever that had become.”
What he will later call “this new version of me.”
Overwhelmed and unmoored, Toby decides to convalesce at Ivy House, his family’s sprawling ancestral home, where he and his cousins Leon and Susanna spent their childhood and adolescent summers under the “benign neglect” of their beloved uncle Hugo, times Toby recalls with great fondness. Hugo has recently been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and needs someone to help out, so Toby and Melissa unwittingly head into the second phase of Toby’s tragedy.
While he is recovering at Ivy House, the skull of a former classmate is found in an old wych elm on the grounds, where it has apparently been hidden away for the past 10 years. To his horror, Toby finds himself transforming again: from victim to murder suspect. His diminished appearance and behavior during the investigation come off as suspicious, and he realizes how much of his former ability to charm was tied to his appearance:
Me six months ago, clear-eyed and clear-voiced, sitting up straight and smart, answering every question promptly and directly and with total unthinking confidence: every cell of me had carried a natural and absolute credibility; accusing me of murder would have been ridiculous. Me now, slurring, babbling, droopy-eyed and drag-footed, jumping and trembling at every word from the detectives: defective, unreliable, lacking any credibility or authority or weight, guilty as hell.
Unable to think clearly or answer questions articulately, drifting off in the middle of questioning, Toby has lost his characteristic ability to talk his way out of trouble. His confidence has evaporated, and panic makes him look even more guilty, even though he doesn’t think he is:
The terrible part was that I knew, with total and wretched certainty, that just a few months ago I would have been able to talk them round: easy-peasy, no problem to me, charming smile and some perfect solution that would make everyone happy. The gibbering mess I was now couldn’t have talked round a five-year-old, even if I had been able to come up with a solution, which I couldn’t …
Even more than a lack of charisma, his memory gaps coupled with a popular, well-mannered boy’s eagerness to please make him confused, suggestible, and vulnerable to manipulation by Detective Rafferty, who is far more skilled than those investigating Toby’s assault. The Witch Elm functions like a Dublin Murder Squad novel seen through the looking glass; it uses the same investigative tactics we’ve admired from previous books when we’ve been rooting for the detective to dig the truth out of a likely suspect, but this time, knowing intimately the effort it takes Toby just to make toast, we’re uncomfortable seeing him squirm and fumble for answers, incriminating himself without even knowing if he’s guilty. It’s an interesting spin on the expected; not the whodunnit of the police procedural nor the whydunnit of the average psych suspense novel, this is a “wait, did I dunnit?” paranoia of a man facing uncertainty for the first time in his life.
The mystery is satisfying, and Detective Rafferty formidably sly in even this half-screen capacity, but the most impressive trick French pulls off is with Toby, maintaining the reader’s sympathies for him despite his alienating character traits. It’s not easy to feel sympathy for a character without empathy, nor is it fashionable to feel sympathy toward the poster child for white male privilege. And yet, the first-person POV encourages a reader’s alliance, and even though it’s tempting to lean in to schadenfreude once Toby’s luck begins to turn, the severity of his beating and his raw vulnerability make any impulse to gloat feel hollow, unseemly.
Toby’s not evil, nor even particularly bad — not in his own estimation: “I had never been cruel before, never, even in school where I had been one of the cool kids and could have got away with anything, I had never once bullied anyone.”
Nor to his mother, although she does seem aware of his shortcomings in the “emotional intelligence” department: “We worried about you being an only, you know […] your dad and I […] I worried that maybe you spent too much time being the center of the world,” she says. “Not that you were selfish, you’ve always been generous, but there was something…”
She trails off before committing to an adjective, but the appropriate adjective is “shitty.” Toby is just a garden-variety shitty dude cushioned by his own privilege into being a careless, inconsiderate person who thinks that “not being cruel” is the same as being kind.
Once Toby is forced to really think about the past, for the purposes of answering the “how did that person get murdered on our property?” question, he discovers how little he has understood about himself and his relationship with/standing within his family. When Susanna confronts him with a childhood cruelty he’s forgotten, she gives him his first startled inkling that there are aspects of his personality to criticize: “Typical: anything you feel bad about just falls straight out of your head.”
And when everything falls out of his head and he’s forced to rely on the memories of others to fill in his blanks, he’s astonished to find that Leon and Susanna have very different memories of their summers together, and a view of him that contradicts his self-image.
He’d spent those childhood summers blithely coasting out of trouble, slick-talking himself and his cousins out of their punishments, thinking he was their great savior, but he missed so much by brushing aside their appeals to him about any troubles they were experiencing that didn’t directly involve him. He never knew the extent of Leon’s homophobic bullying or Susanna’s stalker, and he grew into someone unfamiliar with the struggles of marginalized people: unaware of how Irish health care restricted the rights of pregnant women, how the justice system was biased, why going to the police wasn’t a viable option for everyone. None of these problems had any correlation to his own experiences, so they fell right out of his head, into that chasm of a blind spot Dec called out with his astute observation that “you haven’t a clue.”
By the book’s end, Toby has more of a clue — after he’s been stripped down by Tana French’s pitch-black version of A Christmas Carol: a fortunate man brought low, made powerless, shown what it is to be a dismissed person, how it feels to be unheard, made aware of his casual complicity in disregarding the voices of others when their problems were “other,” on the basis of gender, like Susanna, sexual identity, like Leon, or even wellness, like his roommate in the hospital he’d assumed was “neurotic” and “a pain in the arse” because of the impatience of the doctor addressing her.
It took Toby becoming a victim, becoming a suspect, to understand how much he had to lose, and how easily it could happen. Can empathy be learned under such extreme circumstances? If that’s even the question, it’s one of (at least) two left open for discussion in an ending rich with irony, coincidence, and ambiguous possibilities. Toby’s baffled, helpless “I’m not the same person anymore” is a true statement, but he’s left suspended in a delicious Tana French non-answer after experiencing a much more complicated metamorphosis than Ebenezer Scrooge’s straightforward opportunity to change his ways.