Tana French ducks out of the rain and into an Italian restaurant in the villagey Dublin suburb of Sandymount, looking a little like a mischievous sprite: cap on her head, a crush of vintage and contemporary badges pinned to her bag, a big, open smile. Of Russian, Italian, American and Irish heritage, she orders a cappuccino in the relevant language, though declares herself far fonder of the Leinster damp than the sweltering heat of Rome, where she lived before this latest, decades-long stint in Ireland.
We’re here to talk about the former actor’s seventh novel, The Wych Elm, a twisty psychological thriller that has been likened to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History — and her first to stand apart from her Dublin Murder Squad series. When it came out in the US last October (as The Witch Elm, presumably because the tree in question is European and thus unfamiliar to her Stateside readership), Stephen King took to the New York Times to pronounce it extraordinary, and to invoke the names of Thomas Hardy, James Ellroy and Ruth Rendell: “The prose, as fine as it is, as dense as it is, as obsessive as it is, remains in service to the story. This is good work by a good writer. For the reader, what luck.”
That final word is deliberately chosen; luck is one of The Wych Elm’s abiding themes, and specifically the good fortune enjoyed by its narrator, Toby, throughout the first 28 years of his life. From a united, loving and affluent family, Toby tootles along doing PR for an art gallery, driving his BMW and enjoying his free time with nice-as-pie girlfriend Melissa, with whom he is fondly, if vaguely, considering settling down. Struggling millennial he is not. “Everything has conspired to make him a person for whom the world is set up,” explains French; but when disaster strikes, “he’s not really equipped to cope with any of these things. I think I was thinking a lot about what happens if you’re too lucky in life.”
“These things” would not, in truth, be easy for anyone to deal with. In a boozy snooze after a night on the lash with pals, Toby is woken by intruders in his plush flat; in the ensuing struggle, he receives a head injury that impairs his movement, his confidence and, crucially, his memory. In retreat from the world, and increasingly dependent on reality-skewing drugs, he goes to spend the summer caring for his dying uncle Hugo at the family pile on the outskirts of Dublin. This not entirely perfect plan — there are some deliciously creepy cousins knocking about too — goes startlingly awry when a skull turns up stuffed into a tree trunk in the garden.
Slowly but surely, Toby’s world begins to unravel, bringing to life parts of his past that he has either thoroughly repressed or never apprehended: “He’s always taken for granted that his experience is the defining one — that’s the only thing that counts or matters or has any bearing on reality. So he’s got his own set of experiences and it hasn’t occurred to him to question beyond those.”
Now 45, French is something of a past master at making switches and transformations, perhaps no surprise when you learn that her grandmother was a White Russian whose family fled the 1917 revolution via Crimea and settled in Ethiopia, where she married an Italian lawyer. French’s childhood was marked by frequent moves — her father’s career as a development economist took the family from Vermont to Florence when French was a baby, and later Malawi. By contrast, her husband, Anthony Breatnach, is “straight-up Dublin all the way” and comes from the ancient inner-city district of the Liberties, so-called because for centuries it operated according to laws separate from the rest of the city.
Fascinated by its difference from her own upbringing, French used it in her 2010 novel Faithful Place. When she grew up, she didn’t — as some kids do — rebel against her nomadic life by dashing towards the most stable career path she could find. Instead, she became an actor, working mainly in theatre, and supplementing her income with voiceovers and corporate work (“Click on the icon below for more information,” she instructs me, by way of demonstration. “Still got it!”)
“It’s not coincidence that a lot of writers — a lot of actors too — are third-culture kids,” she says. “Part of it is that we’re comfortable with the instability that goes with the arts life. We’re at home with the idea that you don’t have one solid job that lasts you for ever, it’s not a big upheaval mentally.” In a break between theatre jobs, she worked on an archaeological dig — another passion — and became captivated by a wood near the excavation site. She began to imagine the story of three young children playing there, and only one coming out, unable to remember what’s happened and traumatised thereafter. She scribbled it down, found the piece of paper a year later and still wanted to know what happened. The only option was to write the story herself.
“I didn’t know if I could do it, but I figured I could probably write one scene, and then another scene — and then, oh my God, I’ve got a chapter, and then at a certain point I found myself turning down acting work ... I realised I was pretty serious about it.” She is, she thinks, “the only person who went into writing because it was a more stable career than what I was doing. Contracted for four years! You don’t get that in theatre.”
That idea became her debut novel, In the Woods. Eleven years, numerous awards and global sales of more than five million copies later, she’s established herself as one of the most talented and ambitious crime writers. Her series of police procedurals has explored social hierarchies, particularly in post-crash Ireland. But she admits to a certain nervousness at the apparent change in direction with The Wych Elm, even though she hadn’t originally been aware of working in any particular genre.
“I thought I was writing fiction with a mystery framework,” she recalls with amusement, “until my editor very gently sat me down and explained the difference in sales between a debut literary fiction and a mystery.”
On the vexatious question of genre, French is straightforward and breezy. She’s been imbibing mysteries since she was a child, her reading encompassing an Agatha Christie binge (“They’re Pringles, aren’t they? Once you pop you can’t stop”) and a love of Patricia Highsmith and “that scalpel sharp dissection of how somebody’s psyche can disintegrate ... The most emotionally powerful mysteries of all are other people. I guess that makes sense for an actor to say.” She is an enormous fan of Tartt, declaring The Secret History “one of the great mystery books of all time, and one of the great literary novels, as far as I’m concerned. And she doesn’t compromise on either one. She doesn’t seem to see any reason why she should be limited by either set of genre expectations.”
The kernel of The Wych Elm’s plot comes from a grisly and sad unsolved crime, in which a group of boys found a woman’s remains in a tree-trunk in Worcestershire in 1943. Her identity is still unknown, despite speculation that she was a wartime spy, but the year after the discovery a piece of graffiti asking “Who put Bella in the wych elm?” appeared in Birmingham. French tells me that her brother sent her a link to the case, with the message “This sounds like a Tana French book”; and the setting for her study of buried history that comes bursting into the present revealed itself.
But that’s about as recent a historical murder that French finds herself drawn to; she’s not been swept up in the current vogue for rooting around in violent criminal cases, finding expression in podcasts such as Serial and West Cork: “I’m not really interested by modern true crime, partly because there are people who are still in pain ... and I find it very hard to see it as a fascinating story. But the historical stuff gives you a window into a time and place.” She admires, for example, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which examined the murder of a child but also put the class tensions of the mid 19th century, and the role of the police force, under the microscope.
Nonetheless, French understands why our fascination with those who solve crime fuels popular podcasts and TV programmes, pointing out that they bring us one step closer to the feeling that “you don’t have to be a professional detective to be someone who moves the solution forwards”. I ask her about the problem that must face many writers of crime-related fiction: that real detective work is, necessarily, arduous and mundane. She agrees: “You have to write your way around the fact that a vast amount of this stuff is paperwork and crap and trying to get overtime out of a budget that’s overstretched already and making sure you filled things in in triplicate.”
But there’s something more existential at play: “You have to be the kind of person who’s comfortable being right here face to face with the worst of reality. And it’s in some ways the opposite of being a crime writer. I make stuff up all day. They’ve got truth and justice and life and death on them doing it right. I mess up, there’s too many adjectives. They have a bad day at work, somebody could die. The idea of somebody who’s willing to take on something that high-stakes is fascinating to me. I’m in awe.”
To get her stories straight, French has long conversations with a retired detective. “He’s an amazing guy, he’s so generous with not just his time but his stories. He answers questions I didn’t even know I needed to ask; about the atmosphere, and about the way the dynamics work, and the power plays.” When she was working on her last book, The Trespasser, she rang him to ask about a particular interview technique, and by way of answer, he began to grill her. “There was this mode switch. He went from this lovely, friendly, warm guy to this unstoppable force, who was just focused on me and was getting what he wanted and there was no way I was going to get away from it.”
I say that sounds a little bit like acting. “Yes, they’re running everything, the atmosphere in the room, the rhythm of the conversation — they can speed it up, slow it down. They’re experts at this. They’re conductors, in a way, bringing things louder and softer. They’re absolute experts in understanding people and bringing the right pressures to bear. And it’s something against which civilians are completely unequipped.”
Has all that inside track made her think she might be able to commit a crime and get away with it? “Oh God, no!” she laughs. “It made me think that there’s no way. I don’t know how anybody manages to stay ahead of these people who are so trained and have skills that you haven’t even thought about. Not just for practical reasons, though, but because I think probably nobody with a lot of imagination should ever commit a crime. Because you wouldn’t be able to handle the stress. You would be imagining all the possible ways you could be caught. You’d go to pieces inside a week.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd