Review of The Wych Elm, by Tana French

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With The Likeness, Tana French cemented a place in my top three favourite authors, along with Sharon Bolton and Elizabeth Haynes. But her subsequent offerings have betrayed a steadily coarsening and shrinking imagination. Frank Mackey in Faithful Place is a subtle creation, but his blood relations mostly a collection of lower-class Irish stereotypes with his mother the worst sort of superstitious Mother MacCree given to ‘Holy Family of God’ exclamations and his father a revolting and pitiable alcoholic and minor criminal. Broken Harbour featured the almost clownishly inept detective ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy whose method of getting a ‘solve’ is to apply a ‘template’ to identify the most likely suspect, arrest him on no evidence and try to browbeat a confession. The Secret Place gives us four marvellously appealing schoolgirls, especially Frank’s daughter Holly, but also the odious detective Antoinette Conway, a potty-mouthed female of the ‘Scorcher’ species who reappears in The Trespasser.

Now, with The Wych Elm (retitled The Witch Elm for American readers who (1) don’t know what kind of tree a wych elm is, and (2) couldn’t be bothered to find out about the famous 1943 discovery in Hagley Wood, Worcestershire, we are given a stand-alone from the ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ – though we still have to endure detectives of the Kennedy and Conway class (one of whom meets a fate I’d wish on Kennedy or Conway). Our central character is Toby Hennessy, supposedly a superficially charming 28 year old Dublin publicist for dodgy art who suffers grievous bodily harm at the hands of apparent ‘burglars’ (the reader will figure out the assailants’ motive immediately though it takes the victim and the detectives the entire book and a lucky clue). As a result, Toby loses bits and pieces of his memory. When the body of a school bully who disappeared a decade before is found embedded in a wych elm in the garden of his uncle Hugo’s house (nicknamed the Ivy House), Toby becomes obsessed with the fear that he murdered the victim and placed him in the tree.

Having myself undergone similar injuries (broken leg, five broken ribs, broken hip, broken neck) though on different occasions and as a result of stupidity rather than assailants, I can testify that the account Toby gives of his condition was unconvincing. You may lose your short-term memory of the event, but you’ll not forget something as deeply embedded in your long term memory as having murdered somebody, much less concealed the body in a tree. His injuries also turn Toby into the sort of neurotic self-pitying wreck we saw with Rob Dixon at the end of In the Woods, which makes him squander the love of a woman who is much his superior in every respect. Real victims of such injuries (experto crede) respond by making themselves the best physiotherapy patients determined on mental and physical recovery they can be, not dissolving into whining blobs like Rob and Toby.

Even nominal Irish adults apparently now also express themselves like American thirteen-year-olds, though we get a few Hibernian items such as ‘gaff’ (residence), ‘yoke’ (a what-do-you-call-it), and ‘gaffer’ (boss). Toby employs lots of f-bombs, contemptible persons in his lexicon are ‘douchebags’ and a sarcastic response to an obvious observation is ‘No shit, Sherlock!’ – ‘No shit, Antoinette!’ or ‘No shit, Scorcher!’ would be more appropriate for this author and setting. But then the characters in The Wych Elm don’t read Tana French novels. They also don’t look up bodies found in wych elms on the internet.)

Taking a glance on the verso of the title-page of The Witch Elm at B&N, I noticed that the book was labelled both ‘suspense fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’. Of course it cannot be the latter because the dialogue is set off in inverted commas. Maybe that classification explains why the British publication of The Wych Elm was postponed to 21 February 2019 – to make it eligible for some prize or other? Personally, I’d prefer Tana French to leave ‘literary fiction’ to Sally Rooney and the like, and to bring back Cassie Maddox or Holly Mackey in some real crime fiction, a genre much more mature spiritually and morally that what passes of serious fiction these days anyway.