Tana French returns, siding with victim in ‘The Witch Elm’

“The Witch Elm: a Novel” (Viking), by Tana French

By now we are accustomed to Tana French’s engrossing, eloquently written murder plots solved by the Dublin Murder Squad. This time, however, she’s left the police to work behind closed doors and introduces her first stand-alone novel, “The Witch Elm.”

We meet Toby on the night he’s brutally assaulted in his apartment. This is only the beginning of his problems as he soon finds himself disabled and living with his dying uncle, Hugo. Then a skull is found in the garden of the family home, bringing with it endless questions: To whom did it belong? How did it get there? What if Toby doesn’t know himself as well as he thought?

While past novels contained snarky, quick-witted characters, this book introduces French’s first bloke who properly demands at least a handful of spit-your-drink-out laughs. With that, Toby’s quips never fight for center stage. As always, mystery combined with characters worth caring about glide the story along. French burrows deeply into her victim’s psyche, plucking out his thoughts and presenting them with such elegantly worded descriptions one may think the author has nestled herself in an armchair squarely in Toby’s frontal cortex.

The primary setting, Uncle Hugh’s ivy-covered house with its book-filled study, earthy garden brimming with plants and kitchen complete with casseroles and cousins serves the plot well. The home harbors history and secrets, perfect for a slow reveal, and the countless drugs and drink consumed there guarantee folks will remember that history differently.

As detectives narrow their focus and show up with fewer questions and more answers, the suspense threatens to choke its audience (in the best way). This one is worth two readings: the first with the constant tightening of the chest that accompanies all of French’s work, the second after the reader can breathe again.

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