The Wych Elm by Tana French

Published by Penguin Viking

It’s a case for anything that could go wrong going very, very wrong for golden boy Toby Henderson, right from the very start of Tana French’s stand-alone crime thriller The Wych Elm. From the benefit of distance, sometime in the future, or the reader’s present, Toby recalls his strange, meandering and often unpredictable story, from a night out turning to tragedy, looping back to some workplace naughtiness, further back to school-day misdeeds and then on to and the consequences of a shocking discovery in the place his family considers a haven.

Toby is a care-free young man-about-town born into an educated, middle-class Dublin family, his father one of four boys who grew up in the affluent, suburban Ivy House. Each of his father’s brothers had one child each, bar Hugo, who as a confirmed bachelor lived with his parents in the house until their deaths, then took over custodian duties of the family seat alone. Idyllic summers were spent there by the three close cousins, when their parents took off to Europe to sail, and their benevolent uncle would turn a blind eye upon hi-jinks in their teenage years, where parties and more-or-less harmless mischief would play out in the grounds.

Years later Toby is in his late twenties and one of those annoying charming, insouciant types, falling easily upon success with little effort. He runs marketing and social media for a small but respected art gallery, has a sweet girlfriend who runs her own business, two loyal friends from school who he can confide in and cajole, a loving family and basically the world at his well-heeled feet. Then that world collapses one fateful night when he disturbs a burglary in his parent-funded ground floor apartment and suffers catastrophic head injuries at the hands of one of the criminals.

He’s left with significant impairment following the attack; his memory is muddled, his vocabulary diminished, his right leg drags and his once unerring confidence is severely shaken. His concerned family suggest he decamp for a while to the Ivy House, to recover and recuperate as well as serve as companion to his uncle Hugo, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. As much as Toby resists the idea at first he does come round, and he and his girlfriend Melissa settle in to a gentle and ultimately welcome domesticity.

It’s a surprise then, but not quite a shock, considering this is a crime thriller we’re reading, when almost a third into the hefty book, a grisly discovery is made in the garden by his cousin Susanna’s young son. Here’s where the real story starts, and it’s telling that it begins so far in. French does not kill her darlings here; each and every word is loaded, each and every encounter important. I would perhaps have liked 200 or so fewer pages, but I get the feeling that if something were to be left out, the crime novel would be the poorer for it. To sit down to read The Wych Elm is to very much commit to it, to the ins and outs, the lengthy composition, the explorations of the back story.

From the get go I couldn’t help but draw comparison to Donna Tartt, queen of the dense, lengthy mystery novel. Privileged background? Check. Unreliable male narrator? Check. Wholesome older male figure, and manic pixie dream girl character to offset the rest of the nefarious or unsavoury characters? Check check. The Dublin setting brings it alarmingly close to home however, this story of a man born into advantage and with further advantage thrust upon him, and the murky underside of that world of entitlement. Family allegiance are key and well kept secrets are few but devastating in this tale of menace, murder and the dire consequences of being tumbled unceremoniously from your pedestal.

If you like a fast paced page-turner of a thriller, that you can enjoy and then promptly forget all about then this may not be the one for you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy sinking your teeth into a deftly plotted story high on tension and unafraid of exposition, that takes its sweet time doling out the clues, truths and red herrings then you will do no better than this, a slow-burning thriller that asserts Tana French’s position as one of contemporary Ireland’s greatest literary talents.

First published in The Tuam Herald on 03.04.19

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