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One day, while working with a trowel at an archeological dig, Tana French glanced over at the nearby woods and wondered, "what if three kids went into the woods and only one came out? What would it do to him growing up?"

Within that sentence, which appears in a 2012 interview that Tana French gave to the The Guardian, is the secret of every one of the four novels that she has written about the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad. Notice that the emphasis is not on what happened to the children in the woods, but what that event did to the survivor.

Trained as an actress, French brings to her writing the rich backstory character development that any actor must learn to create. Although loosely following the structure of the genre, her mysteries are mysteries of the soul and the psyche. Of characters; of multi-dimensional characters struggling with the past and the present, loss, yearning, and love. And they do it in some of the most beautiful prose being written in this genre today.

She upends the classic structure of the mystery series. Instead of following a single detective through his struggles to solve a new mystery in each novel, she follows a new detective through a single investigation in each new book. The detectives are all tied together as members of the elite Murder Squad of the Dublin Police, and are introduced as minor characters in earlier novels before they claim center stage in a story of their own. Using different protagonists for each story allows her to look at an aspect of character formed by that individual's life and experience.

And she does it all within the confines of the city she clearly loves, Dublin.

In the Woods
By Tana French
Publishers: Viking Adult/Penguin Books
Hardcover: $25.00, Paperback: $15.00, Kindle edition: $9.99,
Hardcover release, May, 2007; Paperback release, May, 2008
429 pages

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively
Book cover of In The Woods
denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Möbius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.


What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this— two things: I crave truth. And I lie.

Adam 'Rob' Ryan, our narrator, was the little boy who came out of the woods, began using his middle name to avoid the notoriety of his childhood and became a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad.

His partner, and best friend, is the newest member of the Squad, Cassie Maddox. Wounded in the line of duty while undercover, she was allowed her choice of assignments and opted for the Murder Squad which was unaccustomed to women as murder detectives. Ryan didn't really fit in that comfortably either, having picked up a BBC accent while in boarding school in England, which combined with his childhood trauma, contributed to his sense of isolation.

Together they are assigned a case, Operation Vestal, in which the body of a young girl is found in the middle of an archeological dig in Knocknaree, the town Ryan left so many years ago. Refusing to disclose to his superiors his connection to the town, he insists to Cassie that he is fine.

But, as the case drags up thread fine connections and memories of his long buried ordeal, we are left to wonder just how fine he could be. The close friendship he has with his partner is deepened and then strained by what they discover.

The murder victim? As Ryan says

The victim is the one person you never know; she had been only a cluster of translucent, conflicting images refracted through other people’s words, crucial not in herself but for her death and the urgent firework trail of consequences it left behind.
For In the Woods, Tana French won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards for best first novel.

The Likeness: A Novel
Publishers: Penguin Books
Hardcover: $25.00, Paperback: $15.00, Kindle edition: $9.99
Hardcover release, July 2008; Paperback release, May 2009
466 pages

The Likeness takes up several months after In the Woods ends. This time our narrator is Cassie Maddox who has left the Murder Squad after the Vestal case and is now working Domestic Violence. Until Frank Mackey, her old Undercover Squad boss, calls her out to a murder crime scene.

And there on the ground is a dead body that looks exactly like Cassie. And carrying identification with the same name that Cassie used in an earlier undercover operation. Although it is a murder squad case, Mackey convinces the detective in charge, Scott O'Neil who worked with Cassie and Rob on Operation Vestal, to allow Cassie to assume the dead woman's identity in order to gain the confidence of her friends and housemates to find out who she was and who killed her.

Identity is a tricky thing. We learn this as Cassie adopts the false identity that used to be her own false identity that the unnamed dead woman used. As she settles into the house that the victim shared with four other Trinity College post-graduate students she finds herself drawn into the familial relationship they all shared. Cassie, who lost her parents early in life, feels a strong attraction to the people in the house and sometimes seems to forget which is her own reality. She struggles to juggle her identities as the dead woman, the undercover cop and the woman who loves a man in the murder squad.

bad stuff happens to undercovers. A few of them get killed. Most lose friends, marriages, relationships. A couple turn feral, cross over to the other side so gradually that they never see it happening till it’s too late, and end up with discreet, complicated early-retirement plans. Some, and never the ones you’d think, lose their nerve— no warning, they just wake up one morning and all at once it hits them what they’re doing, and they freeze like tightrope walkers who’ve looked down.

Faithful Place: A Novel
Publishers: Viking Adult/Penguin Books
Hardcover: $28.00, Paperback: $16.00, Kindle edition: $9.99
Hardcover release, February 2012; Paperback release, June 2011
416 pages
Faithful Place is a story of Dublin and its neighborhoods as much as it is a story of families, how they shape and haunt us.

Some of the bad stuff happens to Undercover Officer Frank Mackey, whom we met in The Likeness, including the loss of his marriage. He is devoted to his daughter Holly, and struggles to spend as much quality time with her as possible. When he was young, his dysfunctional family taught him well the need to be a good father to his nine year old little girl.

You won’t find Faithful Place unless you know where to look. The Liberties grew on their own over centuries, without any help from urban planners, and the Place is a cramped cul-de-sac tucked away in the middle like a wrong turn in a maze. It’s a ten-minute walk from Trinity College and the snazzy shopping on Grafton Street, but back in my day, we didn’t go to Trinity and the Trinity types didn’t come up our way. The area wasn’t dodgy, exactly— factory workers, bricklayers, bakers, dole bunnies, and the odd lucky bastard who worked in Guinness’s and got health care and evening classes— just separate. The Liberties got their name, hundreds of years ago, because they went their own way and made their own rules. The rules in my road went like this: no matter how skint you are, if you go to the pub then you stand your round; if your mate gets into a fight, you stick around to drag him off as soon as you see blood, so no one loses face; you leave the heroin to them down in the flats; even if you’re an anarchist punk rocker this month, you go to Mass on Sunday; and no matter what, you never, ever squeal on anyone.
He was raised on Faithful Place and Frank was determined to get out, to go to London with his girlfriend Rosie. "I was nineteen, old enough to take on the world and young enough to be a dozen kinds of stupid." But on the night they agreed to meet, she never showed up, leaving only a note that led him to believe she had gone to London on her own.

He stayed in Ireland and became an undercover officer of the Dublin Police. One day his younger sister, the only family member with whom he stayed in touch, called to let him know that Rosie's suitcase had been found in the abandoned house near their childhood home.

Taking a leave, he is drawn back to Faithful Place, confronting his family and his past. When a body is found, believed to be that of Rosie, he finds himself cut off from the investigation by a martinet Murder Squad detective, Jim 'Scorcher' Kennedy. Using the skills of a career undercover, Mackey finds other sources as he struggles to discover Rosie's murderer.

Broken Harbor: A Novel (Dublin Murder Squad)
Publishers: Viking Adult/Penguin Books
Hardcover: $28.00, Paperback: $16.00, Kindle edition: $9.99
Hardcover release, July 2012; Paperback release, April 2013
464 pages

Borken Harbor is a middle class development that had been eagerly snapped up by rising young Dubliners who were quite sure that the housing market would continue to boom, and would provide a ready market for a quick turnaround.

But it didn't work that way for those who bought in just before the crash. The development remained only partially completed on the day that Detective Mick 'Scorcher' Kennedy was sent out to a grisly crime scene involving the murder of two children and their father. The mother had been taken to the hospital, badly injured.

Detective Kennedy, he of the high closure rate and the martinet in Faithful Place, sees himself very differently than do others. It never occurs to him that not learning the names of the floaters who work with him is one of the reasons he never developed the close relationships so many detectives had with their partners. Instead, he convinces himself that he works better alone.

I’ve handled babies, drownings, rape-murders and a shotgun decapitation that left lumps of brain crusted all over the walls, and I sleep just fine, as long as the job gets done. Someone has to do it. If that’s me, then at least it’s getting done right.

Because let’s get another thing clear, while we’re at it: I am bloody good at my job. I still believe that. I’ve been on the Murder Squad for ten years, and for seven of those, ever since I found my feet, I’ve had the highest solve rate in the place. This year I’m down to second, but the top guy got a run of slam dunks, domestics where the suspect practically slapped the cuffs on his own wrists and served himself up on a plate with applesauce. I pulled the tough ones, the nobody-seen-nothing junkie-on-junkie drudgery, and I still scored. If our superintendent had had one doubt, one single doubt, he could have pulled me off the case any time he wanted. He never did.

Here’s what I’m trying to tell you: this case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right. By every rule in the book, this should have been the dream case.

Of course it doesn't turn out that way at all. From the mysterious holes in the walls of the Spain house to the plethora of baby monitors, questions mount. And then a possible suspect appears who seems, for some reason, to have been watching the Spains.

Broken Harbor, like all of French's novels, deals with more than a violent murder, it deals with broken dreams and broken psyches. Scorcher's sister, who shows up one day, struggles with mental health issues that threaten to interfere with Kennedy's ability to do his job. And triggers memories of his own childhood visits to Broken Harbor back when it was a summer vacation spot for Dubliners.

The mark of a good actor is that we never see him. Like Russell Crowe, he disappears into roles of Jeffery Wigand in the Insider and John F. Nash in A Beautiful Mind. We cease so see the actor and only know the character.

That chameleon-like actor's ability to fully inhabit the very essence of another person is what Tana French brings to mystery series genre. Each protagonist is fully a person, different from any other person within the series. And each has his own unique voice. She doesn't simply slap a new name on an old character and carry on. She creates a new character, with 90% hidden below the surface, and gives him a familiar setting in the Murder Squad.

Beware though, she is not a very tidy author, sometimes leaving bits and pieces laying around at the end of her stories. Life itself isn't very tidy however, and all of us have bits of our past and years of unanswered questions haunting us, long past their expiration dates. Personally, I prefer a little untidiness, it makes a home look lived in.

And I could devote an entire diary to the difference that listening to a series like this makes. Perhaps someday I will, but if you have never borrowed your library's audiobooks, this series is a great place to start. Each book is narrated by a different actor and suits well the story he/she tells.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
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alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
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WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
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THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
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FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
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SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Jun 17, 2013 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Shamrock American Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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