Desert Isle Keeper
In early summer of 2007, I picked up a mystery at the Regulator Bookshop. The cover was mildly menacing, black letters embellished with sharp pointed green branches spelled out Tana French In the Woods. From the first lines of the book’s first chapter–What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with the truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusedly like fragmented glass.–to its last I was entranced, unwilling to do anything but read.
Since then, Ms. French has written six books–the Dublin Murder Squad series–all with first person narrators, all loosely connected. My favorite of the set is Faithful Place. My second is her latest, the intricate and satisfying The Trespasser, narrated by Detective Antoinette Conway.
Ms. French’s books are always about a murder but they’re never just that. Each is also about a particular time and place, always in Ireland, and explores the lives of those in the Murder Squad. As her detectives slowly piece together the story of the crime, they reveal the pith of their own lives. Neither is straightforward and no one comes out unscathed.
The murder in this book is of a young woman, Aislinn Murray. Detective Antoinette Conway and her partner Stephen Moran get the case early one frozen Dublin dawn. The two head to the Stoneybatter, a neighborhood on the north side of the city where they find the victim.
She’s on her back, knock-kneed, like someone threw her there. One arm is by her side; the other is up over her head, bent at an awkward angle. She’s maybe five seven, skinny, wearing spike heels, plenty of fake tan, a tight-fitting cobalt-blue dress and a chunky fake-gold necklace. Her face is covered by blond hair, straightened and sprayed so ferociously that even murder hasn’t managed to mess it up. She looks like Dead Barbie.
Aislinn was clearly awaiting a date and when Conway and Moran find she’s got a bloke, they think he’s the likely killer. They bring him in and Antoinette questions him along with Breslin, one of the Murder Squad’s senior detectives.
Everyone has an interview shtick. One guy on the squad does a beautiful line in Father Confessor, piling on the guilt and waving absolution like a doggy treat; another one does Narky Headmaster, staring over his glasses and snapping out questions. I do Warrior Woman, ready to rush out with her guns blazing and avenge all your wrongs, if you’ll just tell her what they are, and her flipside Stroppy Man-Hating Bitch when we want to piss off a rapist or a Neanderthal; I also do Cool Girl, who’s one of the lads and stands her round and has a laugh, who guys can talk to when they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to another fella. Steve does Nice Boy Next Door and variations. With women, Breslin does Gallant Gentleman, taking their coats and bending his head to listen to every word; with guys he does Chief Jock, your best pal but you better stay on his good side or he’ll flush your head down the jacks. We size up the target and wheel out the one that we think has the best chance.
Rory doesn’t need Warrior Woman, at least as far as we know, and Stroppy Man-Hating Bitch would probably scare him under the table, but Cool Girl should relax him a notch or two. It sounds like he’d get on great with Nice Boy Next Door, but that’s out for now. I just hope Chief Jock doesn’t intimidate him enough, or piss me off enough, to send this whole thing off the rails.
Antoinette loathes Rory, but then, Antoinette loathes most people. Her father, who abandoned her when she was young, was dark skinned and between Antoinette’s slightly foreign appearance and her smart mouth, she’s always been hassled. Her Murder colleagues–she’s the only female–have made her life hell since her first month there two years ago and, at this point in her life, she’s almost always ready to blow. The only person she’s somewhat at ease with is Moran–he’s easy going and balances out her anger. Theirs isn’t a romance but it is a pairing which, in Ms. French’s books, usually ends in ruins.
As the two delve into Aislinn’s life–and it’s worth noting that like Antoinette, Aislinn’s father vanished when she was ten–they are under pressure from Breslin and from their boss, Superintendent O’Kelly, to arrest Rory and wrap up the case. This pressure makes Antoinette wary but neither Antoinette nor the reader can be sure her doubts are viable or whether they’re the product of her resentments toward the department. And, as she and Moran, wend their way past obstacles, paperwork, disinformation, and lies to find who killed Aislinn, the things they discover about the case, the Squad and themselves become ever more threatening.
The Trespasser, like In the Woods, is a book I devoured. The prose is vivid and assured and Ms. French’s pacing and plotting expertly done. Her characters are among the realest I’ve read and oh how I hope to encounter all of them–Moran, Conway, Breslin, O’Kelly and the rest of the Murder Squad–again. The book is marred only by the portrayal of Aislinn–she lacks the tangibility the rest of Ms. French’s characters exude.
Ms. French usually publishes a book every two years. Right now, that seems an interminable wait.