In The Woods

By Tana French

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“What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracted 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 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 Mobius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.” (p. 3)

Perhaps no literary form elicits such universally strong feelings as the detective novel.

I know of no reader who is indifferent to the detective novel. Actually, I know of no reader who does not love them – the trouble is, we all love different ones.

And our preferences feel significant. Like our political affiliation, or the movies that make us cry, the kind of detective novel we love feels like it reveals a lot about what kind of reader we are.

Everyone, of course, admires Agatha Christie. She is the Shakespeare of detective stories: she may not move you, personally, but no one would deny her her exalted place, first in the canon.

But, beyond Agatha, what kind of detective story do you love? Do you prefer the cold, cryptic little tales of Sherlock Holmes? Do you like the gory, plotty American novelists, the elaborate sadistic murderers of James Patterson and Patricia Cornwall? The poetic, moody novels of Benjamin Black? The cerebral, funny British women: Josephine Tey, Dorothy Sayers?

Me, I like them all. But I love very few: ‘The Daughter of Time‘, ‘And Then There Were None‘, ‘Christine Falls‘, maybe. And no author has ever commanded urgency from me. Detective novels, for me, are treats, picked up once and a while, chewed through quickly, and then put down, left behind, details almost entirely forgotten. They are more an escape than a book; I inhabit them, but I don’t take them with me, and I don’t rush on to the next one.

This casualness in my relationship with detective novels is, in large part, the fault of the form. The great strengths of the detective novel are also their great weaknesses: they are highly circumscribed, formulaic. The genre has conventions which must either be observed, or else deliberately eschewed: either way, the conventions dictate the story.

The narrowness of these conventions make detective novels blend together. Which was that series, the one with the lone-wolf detective who doesn’t play by the rules? The one who has a substance-abuse issue and a troubled past? Oh, that’s right: every single one.

But this narrowness is also, I think, why people love these novels so much. The highly predictable nature of these novels make the small differences between them significant. They look so like each other, but when you spy a difference you love, you appreciate it all the more for its subtly.

I have found one that I love. In fact, I have found one that I love so much that I suspect that I may love the author and not just the novel. I have found one that I love so much that I ordered, in one burst, all the other books in the series, before I was even one third finished with it.

I’m not the only person who feels this way. Tana French has been blowing up my pop-culture recommendations lately. I’ve heard her name on every podcast I listen to, read it on every book club reading list that crosses my path. And, normally, this kind of ubiquity prejudices me against the object. I am perverse, and childish – I hate liking something that everyone else likes.

But Tana French is better than my immature contrarianism. ‘In the Woods‘ is the first of the six Dublin Murder Squad novels. That meta-title, ‘Dublin Murder Squad’, makes these novels sound macho, high testosterone and swaggering, in a way that ‘In the Woods’ is emphatically not.

In the Woods‘ is about the investigation of the murder of a little girl. The body of twelve year old Katy Devlin is found outside the housing estate where she lived; it is also the estate where Detective Rob Ryan lived, decades before, and from which his two best friends went missing one day, from the woods. They were never found, and Rob has no memory of that long-ago afternoon. Now, he and his partner Cassie Maddox have been sent back to find out what has happened to Katy.

Of course, the devil of the detective novel is in the details – you learn almost nothing from the premise. This premise, a murdered child, an unlikely coincidence, this could be any detective novel. But Tana French has written something beautiful, and strange, and she has managed to do so within the confines of this genre, which requires extra skill.

Bad detective novels are about crime – good detective novels are about people. ‘In the Woods‘ is about friendship. It is about the deep and abiding love that grows between people, and what happens when it is ruptured, or when it curdles. It is about friendship as a binding force, and about broken friendship as a denaturing force, deranging. It is about what is means to have a friendship so close that it is closer than family, and then to lose it. It about grief and how it hardens us.

Tana French

There is so much I admire about this book. I admire the story: it is subtle and careful. Most detective stories rush into plot – they are split between poor dialog and action sequences. It is a genre characterized by speed, and tidiness, which cannot bear a long pause, or a loose end.

French, on the other hand, is a patient author. She lingers with her characters for their own sake – they are the point of her novel, not the murder. Her world is not a tidy one, and not all crimes will be solved, not all motives answered. She is not dealing in archetypes here, but endeavoring instead to imagine people, and people are messy. They are not, like crimes, solvable, and so she does not solve them. Most detective novels are about one big mystery, and if there other mysteries, they orbit the main mystery and will be solved with it.

But, in French’s world, people are all mysteries, and so mysteries spring up between them, and a murder, or a disappearance, is just one of the many possible difficulties that might happen in the endless collisions between unknowable beings. And so most mysteries, in her world, will never be solved. And even if you learn who, when, where, and how, you will never really understand why.

And she is a lovely writer. I have a prejudice that Ireland produces especially beautiful writers of English, that the prose that they make has a particular lyrical quality which I have always loved. Detective stories are not the place for Joycean prose-poetry – those kind of verbal gymnastics would be, frankly, annoying – but you hear the poetic bent in French’s prose, in her descriptions, in the moody, creepy pall which hangs over her Dublin.

This book owned me completely, and so here is the plain truth of it: I don’t want to write anymore about ‘In the Woods‘ – I want to go read the next Dublin Murder Squad book, ‘The Likeness‘, which has already arrived and is hollering silently at me from my desk. This is the highest compliment I know how to give an author, really: I don’t have time to write about them – I have to go and read them.

Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood

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I’m beginning to suspect that all Margaret Atwood’s books are really just about how terrible men are.

Certainly, that’s what ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘ is about.  It’s pretty much what ‘Oryx and Crake‘ is about.  It’s kind of what ‘The Blind Assassin‘ is about, although I’ll grant that is a fuzzier case.

But it’s definitely what ‘Alias Grace‘ is about.

Alias GraceNot superficially, of course.  ‘Alias Grace‘ is the story of Grace Marks, convicted at the age of 16 of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his head of household (and lover), Nancy Montgomery.  She allegedly commits this murder with the help of her lover, James McDermott, who is hanged for the crime.  Grace, in view of her youth, is given a life sentence.

Most of the novel takes place many years into her imprisonment, during her extended examination by Dr. Simon Jordan, who is a specialist in diseases of the mind.  It is the story of her life (from her questionable perspective), of her relationship with this doctor, of his obsession with her, and of the murders themselves.  It is a mystery of guilt or innocence.

But, really, it’s a long indictment of men, of male power and the abuses it rains down upon women who are powerless.  It is about doctors who grope during examinations, employers who rape their servants, institutions which incarcerate women who do not conform, men who defame women who will not sleep with them, abortionists who kill women without consequence.

It about the fact that, in a society where men alone are powerful, women are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

I’m not exaggerating this theme, and it is not subtle.  Take, for example, this discussion of quilts, which Grace is forever sewing and on which she is forever discoursing:

“…when we’d hung a half-dozen of them up on a line, all in a row, I thought that they looked like flags, hung out by an army as it goes to war.

And since that time I have thought, why is it that women have chosen to sew such flags, and then to lay them on the the tops of beds?  For they make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room.  And then I have thought, it’s for warning.  Because you may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep.  But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed.  It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth, which is often their last.  And it is where the act takes place between men and women that I will not mention to you, Sir, but I suppose you know what it is; and some call it love, and others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through.” (p. 161)

Check your privilege, Sir.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

Of course, Margaret Atwood is a marvelous storyteller; she always has been.  She has an eye for detail, for immersion.  It’s easy to lose yourself in her books: I sat down and read ‘Alias Grace‘ in one long layover in Tokyo, and I was honestly in more danger of developing thrombosis from reading this book than I was in the 12 hour flight that followed it.  That’s a strong recommendation for any novel.

But there is something about Atwood which always makes my teeth hurt a little, something irritating right at the edge of her writing.  Perhaps it is a lack of irony.  There is a lyrical quality to her prose, a sort of sing-songing free association in her descriptions, which can be enormously effective, but which more often annoys me badly.

Here, for example, is a passage where I think that writing style works really well:

“The season has now officially changed: Lydia has burst into bloom.  Layers of pale floral ruffling have sprouted all over her, and wave from her shoulders like diaphanous wings.  Simon eats his fish – overdone, but no one on this continent can poach a fish properly – and admires the smooth white contours of her throat, and what can be seen of her bosom.  It’s as if she is sculpted of whipped cream.  She should be on the platter, instead of the fish.  He’s heard stories of a famous Parisian courtesan who had herself presented at a banquet in this way; naked, of course.” (p. 193)

Here, though, is an example of that writing style which makes me want to run screaming from the room:

“It’s the middle of the night, but time keeps going on, and it also goes round and around, like the sun and the moon on the tall clock in the parlour.  Soon it will be daybreak.  Soon the day will break.  I can’t stop it from breaking in the same way it always does, and then from lying there broken; always the same day, which comes around like clockwork.  It begins with the day before the day before, and then the day before, and it’s the day itself.  A Saturday.  The breaking day.”  (p. 295)

I understand that this passage is supposed to communicate the maddening monotony of an imprisoned life, but I’ve never really liked expression by reader-punishment like this – just because my protagonist is suffering should not mean that I must, too.

Or, perhaps, what annoys me is the vague sense of female grievance that lurks behind Atwood’s stories.  Yes, men can be terrible, but there is something flat, two-dimensional, to a world in which everything is explained by the fact that men are terrible, to a world in which all men are terrible in some way, a world in which you cannot have both a good nature and a penis.

And then there is the problem of the resolution.

[Warning: what follows is a very spoilery spoiler.  Very, very spoilery].

It’s always disappointing when endings and books don’t match, when a well-developed and richly imagined book purchases its end with implausible plot theatrics.

A general rule of mine: there are, I think, a few plot mechanisms which, if you find yourself using them, always mean that you need to re-think your storyline.  They signal lazy craft – they are cheap.

These plot developments include (but are not limited to): secret brother-sister incest (I’m looking at you, ‘August: Osage County‘, and you, ‘Crimson Peak‘), a secret twin (excusing ‘The Prestige‘, which pulls it off and (little known fact) is a book!), and a protagonist with undiagnosed Multiple Personality Disorder.

Alias Grace‘ strongly implies that Grace Marks, at the time of the murders, is under the control of an alternate personality, that of her dead friend, Mary Whitney, whose death (at the hands of a back-alley abortionist, of course) was traumatic for Grace.  And, just to add fuel to the trashy fire, this fact is brought to light while she is under hypnosis.

Resolving a murder mystery via multiple personalities is, in my opinion, totally bogus.  ‘Alias Grace‘ is a subtle, thorough story, based on a real person who almost certainly did not have multiple personalities.  Until that session of hypnosis, it was a complex novel about power, and rage, and friendship, and love, what it means to be guilty and whether we can ever see how the world looks through another person’s eyes and how slippery the truth can be.

And then it resolves all that lovely moral ambiguity with the sort of plot device that you expect to see in an episode of Criminal Minds.  It was very disappointing.

None of which, obviously, kept me from turning its pages like it was the last book on Earth.  That’s Atwood for you – whatever your complaints about her, she’s tough to put down.