Do lucky people ever really know how lucky they are? Toby Hennessy has the decency to realize that his life has been buoyed by the gentler breezes of fate, “the satisfying sense that everything was going exactly as it should.” But he is also, of course, the creation of one of the premier voices in contemporary crime fiction — and Tana French wouldn’t invent a guy like Toby just to watch him spend long brunch-y Saturdays with his lovely girlfriend and move steadily up the ladder in gallery PR.
By the time an unidentified human skull is found beneath the titular witchy tree of the Hennessy family estate, silent and bony and clotted with dirt, Toby’s golden-boy aura has already hit a wall, hard. Brutally attacked by home invaders after a night out at the pub, he’s become a broken man, scared and scarred. And the skull is just one more fragment of his past — or at least the story of the past he’s always told himself — to unearth.
Stepping outside her Dublin Murder Squad series for the first time, French has constructed a sort of discursive, densely layered family drama disguised as a mystery — and a protagonist who is, purposefully or not, a timely paragon of a certain kind of oblivious male privilege. The final revelations in The Witch Elm are startling, even if they don’t quite justify its 500-page length; a whodunit far more memorable for the why than the who. B