The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad #6), by Tana French

Eight stars

While my February binge-read of Tana French has reached its end, these mysteries remain some of the best novels I have read in a long while. They pull key aspects of police procedurals with a dash of Irish charm and leave the reader with a sense of completion, after a drawn-out story and systematic solution. Picking up a few months after The Secret Place, French turns the focus onto Detective Antoinette Conway, who came from a single-parent home and whose mixed-race background left her feeling out of place. Working the night shift with partner Stephen Moran, Conway joins him as they investigate an apparent domestic disturbance gone wrong. As they arrive to begin their investigation, Conway and Moran learn a little more about Aislinn Murray. Living alone, she appeared to have been expecting someone, with the table set for a nice meal. Conway soon learns that Aislinn had a new boyfriend, Rory Fallon, who had plans to meet her around the time of her murder. Fallon proves less than sinister during his initial interview, though his timeline for the night of the murder is flimsy enough that he could have turned up and committed the crime before following through with date night story. Turning up the pressure, in hopes of having Fallon spill, Conway gets nowhere and his forced to keep her options open.New avenues turn up potential leads, including that Aislinn apparently become fixated on her father, who disappeared from his family twenty years before. After being encouraged to forge onwards, Conway is left to chase down a gang angle. There is the additional angle as to why Aislinn changed her image a few years ago, dolling herself up and becoming more sociable. As she struggles to piece this case together, Conway receives a visit from her own father, who disappeared when she was little. This interaction is nothing short of a disaster and only serves to exacerbate a sense of being unwanted. Sensing parallels in her own life and Aislinn’s past, Conway takes a new approach and revisits all the information that have on hand. It is only then that the case takes an interesting turn and turns up ideas that were previously hidden from her investigation. Filled with wonderful storytelling and an evolving narrative, French remains on the top of her game in this explosive novel, perfect for series fans and curious folk alike.

All six Dublin Murder Squad novels have proven to be a delight to read, with their winding narratives and strong cast of characters. The dedicated reader will see a loose formula to them, but this is not to say that it presents anything close to ‘cookie cutter’ in nature. Pulling the reader in to learn more about Antoinette Conway was the perfect approach for this novel, as she played a minor role previously and might have left some readers wondering about this slightly abrupt detective who allowed Stephen Moran into her case at St. Kilda’s (see The Secret Place). French develops a number of other great characters, whose banter and placement in the story help push the narrative along, sometimes in ways the reader might not expect. Choice of the murder victim as well as the motive are also important to an effective story, which French has kept unique and yet timely as the series gained momentum. French is always keen on adding themes, which helps add new flavour to the story and keeps me entertained as I gather the threads together. The title proves to be the strongest theme for me, showing the various forms of trespassers that emerge. One could easily see that the murderer proved to be the most apparent trespasser that invaded Aislinn Murray’s home, entering and leaving her body strewn on the floor after a struggle. Fathers to both Aislinn and Antoinette could also be seen as trespassers, having left their homes but invaded these women’s minds at various points in the story’s development. Antoinette herself may feel like a trespasser in the Squad, as she is vilified and treated poorly by her fellow detectives, turning against the only woman investigating murders. This trespasser sensation could lead her to depart, which would only fuel the rumours that Conway cannot handle the intensity of murder and the “boys’ club” that it seems to be. The conscientious reader may see others, which are left to germinate for those who want a little more out of the mystery. These well-crafted tales are surely not for everyone, as the story takes time to evolve and the narrative offers slow and paced growth, but that is perhaps one of the greatest features, as the reader is forced to investigate alongside the Murder Squad. While I am caught up on the series, the binge complete, I cannot wait to see where else this series takes fans. 

Kudos, Madam French for leaving me needing more, which only goes to show how effective you are at writing. I hope that many who read this and other reviews will find the time to at least try one of your mysteries and see for themselves that Ireland holds many gems, not all of which require a rainbow.

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad #5), by Tana French

Eight stars

Tana French finds new ways to dazzle and impress me with the fifth Dublin Murder Squad novel. Readers familiar with Faithful Place will remember Holly Mackey, daughter of Frank Mackey, and Dublin Police floater Stephen Moran. Seven years later, Moran is now working on Cold Cases and receives an unlikely visit from Holly, who is now sixteen and enrolled at St. Kilda’s, an all-girls boarding school. Holly explains that the school has a wall where students can post anonymous comments about their lives without repercussions, called The Secret Place. Holly has come to Moran with one of the cards she found pinned to the wall, a photo of a young man from the nearby all-boys school who was murdered a year ago. On the back of this card, a message indicating that the card’s creator has information about the murder. Moran takes this and approached the case’s Murder Squad lead, Detective Antoinette Conway, in hopes of joining the investigation. Conway is leery, but agrees after Moran argues his rapport with Holly might be an asset. Trying to make headway, Conway and Moran encounter a clic of girls at the school, all of whom have sentiments about the victim, Chris Harper. This group of teenaged girls would make a murder of crows seem angelic, as they protect one another in one breath and roast the weakest links in the next. Holly is firmly rooted in one of these groups and the investigation shows how Harper used a number of these girls, emotionally and physically, before discarding them and moving onto the next conquest. The reader is given added insight through French’s use of a flashback narrative in numerous chapters, which fills in major gaps that Moran and Conway are not able to acquire. While it appears Harper sought to play the girls for his own benefit, which girl is ultimately responsible for his demise is not clear, nor is the witness who posted to The Secret Place. Perhaps the most challenging Squad case yet presented to readers, French does a brilliant job in drawing out the story and then showing how the murderer came to slay young Chris Harper. Fans of the series and new readers alike will find much to enjoy in his book.

As absorbing as these books have become, I sometimes find myself wondering when the other shoe will drop. Will French run out of ideas and have to replicate a plot or premise? I have yet to find that concern and her continued variety has me feeling constantly refreshed. Somewhat of a thriller and police procedural nut, I have been around the block and French stands leaps and bounds ahead of many other authors in the genre. Her constant rotation of protagonists proved even more effective here, as she broke the pattern of finding a minor character from the previous book and looked two novels earlier. She also chose to incorporate three past characters in the story, which forces series fans to remember the nuances that both Mackeys and Moran brought to the aforementioned third book in the series. The cast of school girls was also a significant feat and that it was done so well (and offered a variety of characters even within the group) speaks to French’s superior writing abilities. As with the past novels, I was able to extract a theme from the text, through the title. The ‘secret’ place has many meanings throughout the story, from the literal place that is used by the girls to air their private sentiments to the as yet unattainable Murder Squad job that Moran seeks. One might also find that these girls are seeking the secret place as a meeting spot to encounter Chris Harper or more metaphorically the ‘place’ in his heart. As the investigation proves intense and Frank Mackey makes an appearance, the reader might wonder if the ‘secret’ place could be thinking someone could be so dark as to travel down a path thought impossible before. However the reader chooses to interpret it, the dynamic between the girls, the police, and the overall mystery is formidable and should give the reader a high-impact mystery with the most unpredictable of characters. If it has not been clear up to this point of the review, or my sentiments in all books of the series, this is a must-read for anyone who has patience and interest in superior thriller novels.

Kudos, Madam French for proving how versatile you are and how the ideas seem never-ending. I am excited to get to the next novel, though it is a little sad that the binge is almost done.

Broken Harbour (Dublin Murder Squad #4), by Tana French

Eight stars

Tana French continues to amaze with her fourth stunning Dublin Murder Squad novel, proving that binge-reading this series was a wonderful February treat. After playing a minor role in Faithful Place, Mike ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy is able to steal the spotlight and prove readers why he is the Squad’s star detective. Assigned to work with rookie Detective Richie Curran, Kennedy picks up a brutal assault/murder over in Brianstown, colloquially known as Broken Harbour. When they arrive, the detectives discover Pat Spain and his two children dead, with wife Jenny stabbed and barely clinging to life. Preliminary sleuthing shows that the Spains were deeply in debt, well on their way to insolvency, which might pose as the strongest motive for Pat to have committed this heinous crime. As he mentors young Curran on the ins and outs of homicide investigation, Kennedy wrestles to keep his history with Broken Harbour from surfacing; a mother who committed suicide over twenty years before. If that were not enough, Kennedy’s sister, Dina, has taken a turn for the worse. Her eccentric ways are not always handled completely with the medication she has been prescribed, leaving Dina to be a danger to herself and those in her immediate vicinity. Kennedy vows not to let Dina know that this case has brought him back to Broken Harbour, concerned that the mere mention of it might re-open the abyss of Dina’s deep-rooted mental health concerns. The high-profile nature of the case is making that more difficult by the hour, forcing Kennedy and Curran to work quickly. After staking out the home, Kennedy and Curran find Conor Brennan literally lurking in the bushes and bring him in for questioning. It is at this point that the case and the novel take significant twists, particularly as computer forensics provide Kennedy and Curran an interesting glimpse into the life of Pat Spain and his daily struggles. How closely tied is Brennan to the Spains’ demise and what truths lurk on the World Wide Web that could blow the case wide open? French toys with the reader throughout this story and paces her narrative in such a way that the suspense grows with every page-turn. Another fascinating glimpse into the world of the Irish police procedural that does not disappoint, no matter where you live.

While it may seem that I am rushing through these novels, I can assure everyone that they have my full attention. The art of novel writing is one that French has discovered and honed over a number of years, proving that she is worth every accolade presented. The use of a fourth different protagonist is not only a brilliant move to keep the story fresh, but it forces the reader to pay close attention and not gloss over some of the background development. With new characters emerging in each novel, French has been forced to craft them carefully and this novel does an exceptional job of linking their stories to the larger narrative. While the story progresses naturally, French uses the perfect amount of Irish brogue to give the reader a sense that they are right in the action, working out of Dublin Castle alongside Kennedy, Curran, and the other members of the Squad. She is also able to inject a theme that permeates the entire story and branches out as needed; in this instance, control in all its forms. While Kennedy might need to control his underling, Curran, he is also forced to offer a sibling protection/control of Dina when she flies off the rails. French also insinuates that there is a strong need for self-control among a number of characters, including Kennedy, Curran, and Pat Spain, though its success is measured in varying degrees throughout the story. One might also see control in the form of online research or technological devices scattered around the Spain household as Pat attempts to create digital omnipotence to battle the issue that arises throughout the narrative. Finally, the ever-present surveillance done by Conor Brennan shows an attempt to control the lives of others without their knowledge. French pushes that the more we seek to control a situation, the less we are able to manage it. In the end, it is an acceptance of a lack of control over minutiae that could save us from ourselves. I only hope that makes some degree of sense, as it rattled around my brain for much of the novel’s slow and steady momentum. I forge onwards to find out what French has in store for readers in the next instalment, though I will take a moment to absorb all that has been offered up and the power of a French novel to move me.

Kudos, Madam French for making this binge-reading adventure one that has helped me discover that I have no control when it comes to superior writing and the authors at the helm. I just may have found some of my best reading of 2017 in your collection of novels.

Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad #3), by Tana French

Nine stars

Another stunning novel by Tana French has me rushing to ensure I will be able to continue my binge reading without interruption. After proving his worth as Cassie Maddox’s handler in The Likeness, Francis ‘Frank’ Mackey is given his own novel, where the reader can explore the deep and emotionally-driven aspects of the man’s life. At nineteen, Mackey and his sweetheart, Rosie Daly, planned to leave their dead-end lives in Dublin and cross over to England. When Rosie did not turn up at their rendezvous point, Mackey slumped back home, only to find a ‘Dear John’ letter, which explained that she chose to flee alone. Feeling jilted, Mackey ran off, never to look back on his family or the life he hoped to soon forget. Just over two decades later, Rosie’s suitcase is found around the Mackey home and Frank’s emotions come rushing back after a call from his kid sister. Soon a body is discovered that bears forensic similarities to young Rosie Daly and Mackey tries to weasel his way into the investigation, much to the dismay of Dublin Murder Squad star-detective, Scorcher Kennedy. Not only does Frank have to come to terms with the murder of his first love, but he also must return to face his family and the issues he thought he left in his past. If that were not enough, his closeness to the victim and surrounding area has Kennedy blocking his access at every turn. Remembering not only the lead-up to his planned departure with Rosie but also the struggles he faced growing up in a tenement house, Mackey vows never to let his own daughter bear witness to the depravation that almost crippled him, while he juggles processing his lot who have not matured in the two decades since his absence. With Rosie’s killer potentially somewhere in the tenement project, someone else close to Mackey dies and all eyes shift on him. Could he have killed Rosie and then tried to cover-up when others began to poke around? Told in her brilliant form, French offers the reader a slow and methodical examination of a central theme while developing the story narrative throughout. A must-read for those who have tired from all the cookie-cutter “kill/search/find” police procedurals on the market today.

I am as gobsmacked as the next person that French has me speechless (save for this review) three books into the series. There is nothing commonplace about these books or the characters found herein. While I expected a series of cases with the same central murder squad, these books have taken twists and turns I could not have expected, pulling me well beyond simple admiration. This novel seeks to push away from the formal murder investigation as Frank Mackey takes the reins and does his own investigating, introducing readers to a handful (or a score, even) of local and less-refined Dubliners who have always lived in the shadows of tenement houses and blue-collar lives. French does not shy away from their boozing, beating, and belligerent nature, while shaping a story that uses this to her advantage. The narrative is slow as January molasses, but in so being, allows the reader to gaze at all that surrounds them and develop deeper bonds and curiosities. As with each novel, French offers a soap box for a central theme; this one being the role of family. Frank Mackey is forced to return to the childhood home and face the dysfunction that he sought to flee with two ferry tickets over to England. He must admit from where he has come while trying to shield his young daughter from mixing with his own blood. French effectively shows the less than desirable side of the Mackeys and the Dalys, but also the great socio-economic disparities in Dublin, without making a mockery of the entire thing. Class and standing play a central role in one’s upbringing, but forgetting one’s roots will never erase the past that has shaped the present. A stunning novel that has left me aching to get back over t0 Ireland sooner than later. I only hope the next story is as captivating, as I have discovered a pattern in French’s choice in protagonists.

Kudos, Madam French for yet another wonderful novel. I do hope my friends and family will find your work as riveting as I have, as I speak about it on a daily basis.

The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2), by Tana French

Nine stars

After being stunned by Tana French’s opening novel, I was equally impressed with the second instalment of the Dublin Murder Squad. After being severely emotionally scarred during Operation Vestal, in which a young girl was murdered, Cassie Maddox left the Squad for the more structured world of Domestic Violence. After receiving a frantic call from Squad Detective (and current boyfriend) Sam O’Neill, she agrees to meet him at the scene of his latest case; perhaps her first mistake. Cassie arrives to discover a murder victim who bears a striking resemblance to her, with identification listing the victim as Lexie Madison. This startles Maddox and takes her back to days working Undercover, where Maddox used the same name. With no leads, O’Neill hatches a plan alongside Frank Mackey, Maddox’s handler from those days working Undercover, wanting to place Maddox back into the life of Lexie Maddox. Their long-shot hope, to lure the killer back out of the shadows, while also allowing Maddox to gather intel from the four roommates with whom Madison shared a house. Maddox re-establishes herself as an undercover plant, testing her skills as attempts to fit into a life she never knew. To smooth over obvious gaps in what Maddox is able to ascertain about this new Lexie Madison, she heads into the house armed solely with a sketchy backstory of amnesia and the recent stabbing. As Mackey and O’Neill push her, a few motives for the attack come to the surface, though Maddox is unable to substantiate any of them. Could the killer be in plain sight, fraternizing with Maddox on a daily basis, or does an ancient grudge held by the townspeople help to fuel a hatred strong enough to kill? Maddox has a limited time to find the truth before being discovered and the killer slips away. Told with as much deliberate pacing as the previous novel, French shows that she was not a one-hit wonder. Perfect for those who seek a less than conventional murder mystery and police procedural. 

I am still in awe that it took me so long to discover Tana French and her brilliant series. After pulling Adam ‘Rob’ Ryan into the spotlight throughout the opening novel, French turns to his (former) partner and best friend, using both her backstory and previous work in Undercover to develop this equally gripping story. Peppering the narrative with mentions of Ryan, French keeps him at arm’s length and away from making even the briefest of appearances. While some readers might have found the idea of a ‘lookalike’ entirely dubious for this or any other novel, French has a reason for pushing this idea, discussed below. French uses this ‘swap out’ to develop the struggles that Cassie Maddox had playing this faux character, as any undercover plant would while trying to hone in on what happened to the victim. The characters presented throughout the novel help to bring life and action to the plot, while also showing the strains of undercover work during the building of a watertight case against a handful of suspects. The latter portion of the explores the idea of imposters, which might explain the aforementioned use of the lookalike situation. French examines both the imposters angle that individuals use to fool others (a la Jekyll and Hyde), where a person takes on a false persona for their own benefit. Alternatively, there is the imposter that one plays against themselves, trying to pretend that they fit into another socio-economic bracket or general caste. Both are damaging and yet useful in one’s daily life. I would venture to say there is not a single reader who can completely divorce themselves from these situations in their own lives. French explores this theme extensively throughout the narrative, arguing that they appear on a regular basis, even if we cannot decipher them independently. Perhaps her greatest quality of French’s writing is her style of slow narrative momentum to stretch the story out while keeping the reader’s attention throughout. A stunning novel that is sure to garner scores of new fans for Tana French and provide much fodder for discussion. 

Kudos, Madam French for keeping me hooked as I delve deeper into the Dublin Murder Squad. I cannot wait to find out what you have in store with your third novel. 

In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad #1), by Tana French

Nine stars

After much waiting and some significant ‘biblio’ peer pressure, I have finally decided to take the plunge into the world of Tana French and the Dublin Murder Squad. In the summer of 1984, three children went missing in the woods on the outskirts of Dublin. When authorities arrived, they found one boy, Adam ‘Rob’ Ryan, delirious and unsure what had happened to him. The other two were presumed dead, their bodies never found. Flashing forward two decades, Ryan has recreated himself, using his middle name, and finds himself working as a Homicide detective in Dublin. Partnered with his best friend, Cassie Maddox, they are used to the most gruesome of scenes. When Ryan and Maddox are called to an archeological dig site, they discover the body of twelve year-old Katy Devlin, buried under a ceremonial headstone. This sparks many disturbing memories for Ryan, as it is the exact location of his childhood trauma. While beginning to amass clues in the Devilin murder, Ryan is forced to revisit his past, told in a number of developing flashbacks. He tries to make sense what happened to his two best friends as he remembers the news they shared leading up to that summer afternoon. The deeper Ryan and Maddox dig into the possible motives for the crime, the more suspects they unearth who might harbour the necessary grudge to kill young Katy. Could the murder investigation hold the key to solving the crime from that long ago summer night? Ryan struggles to come to terms with this while also balancing the burden of having no means of helping the two people he loved the most. Simultaneously, his personal interactions with Maddox open paths of confusion and animosity that may be irreparable. French makes her debut in stunning fashion, sure to impress all those who enjoy a police procedural of the highest order.

While I have heard much of Tana French in the last few months, I had been inundated with new series in my 2016 reading journey that I was not sure I ought to add another collection to my list. However, the series held a few unique aspects, one of which was its setting in Ireland, a place I hold close to my heart. After allowing myself to try at least one novel, I discovered that French tells a story that proves as gripping as some of the great European series I have discovered in the past couple of years. The Rob Ryan character is both gripping and baffling, which caught my attention from the start. His work on the Homicide Squad and the struggles tied to his youth proved to be a thread throughout the story and remained relevant until the final pages. While French takes her time in the story’s progression, the drawn out development is done in such an effective way that the reader forgets the pace at which the story matures. The plot is both straightforward and convoluted, as the reader encounters twists and dead ends as they relate to motives for the crime. Strains between the characters help bridge portions of the investigation narrative, but might surge into being central plot lines for subsequent novels. French takes on a great deal in her debut piece but comes out of the experience firmly rooting herself in the genre by providing a unique flavour. I am eager to lose myself in her subsequent novels, which I hope are just as riveting.

Kudos, Madam French for blowing my mind and creating an instant fan out of me. I cannot wait to rush into the second novel, hoping that Ryan and the rest of the gang prove equally as compelling.