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The Wych Elm by Tana French

The Wych Elm is Tana French’s seventh novel but her first standalone effort outside of the acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series. That’s an important thing to keep in mind, I think, because it might go some way towards explaining the book’s ambitions and – I’m sorry to say – weaknesses.

Although The Wych Elm is still crime fiction, French, for the first time, moves entirely away from the detectives’ perspective and writes instead from the point of view of a civilian caught up in the mystery. Toby Hennessy is a slick young PR guy, a self-described “lucky prick” whose life, thus far, has been smooth sailing. That changes when he is attacked in a seemingly random home invasion. He escapes with his life, just, but the damage to his body, mind and psyche is immense and colours everything that follows.

Amidst the aftermath of the attack, Toby’s uncle Hugo is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Toby moves in with him to act as caregiver. Hugo lives at the “Ivy House”, a suitably atmospheric old mansion where Toby and his cousins used to spend their summers.

That’s when the main crime storyline kicks off. A skull is found hidden inside the hollow trunk of a wych elm in Hugo’s garden, and Toby and his entire extended family suddenly find themselves under suspicion for murder. (French was inspired by the real-life case of “Bella”, an unidentified woman whose remains were found inside a wych elm in 1943.)

It’s a great premise; French’s writing is, as always, beautiful; and we have a classic unreliable narrator in Toby, thanks to his post-injury memory loss and psychological scarring. But the technical elements that French has handled so masterfully in the past – pacing, plotting, suspense-building – feel curiously off here. The build-up I outlined above plays out painfully slowly: the skull isn’t even discovered until 160 pages in. (Before you get outraged at me for spoiling the entire first third, let me point out that the blurb on the book jacket does the same thing.)

Even when the pace does pick up, there’s an odd lack of tension. The net of suspicion is cast so wide over every character that when we do eventually find out what happened, it doesn’t come as a huge surprise. The one truly shocking plot development, for me, was something only peripheral to the murder mystery.

And that, I believe, is a crucial point. French has already proven she can write a good whodunit; she’s done so six times over. With The Wych Elm, I suspect her goal was different. She set out to transcend her genre, and she did it: at its best, the book is a sophisticated meditation on privilege and an exploration of each individual’s capacity for destruction. But at its worst, it’s a crime novel where the author herself doesn’t seem particularly interested in the central crime.

Reviewer: India Lopez

Penguin Random House, $37