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6 March 2019

Tana French’s The Wych Elm shows the problem with the “literary” thriller

French's attempt to elevate crime fiction into literature leaves the reader in a near-constant state of befuddlement.

By Leo Robson

Toby Hennessy, the 28-year-old PR guy at the heart of Tana French’s new novel, is a strong believer in things cohering – a story, a memory, a human personality. At one point, he even uses the word as a transitive verb, describing his habit of enjoying good luck as “the keystone that cohered my bones”. It would be hard to think of a better summary of what’s missing from the book itself.

As a reading experience, The Wych Elm never comes into view. It’s so replete with reflections and revelations, currents and cross-currents, that you’re left in a near-constant state of befuddlement about what French – fêted for her series of six books about members of the Dublin Murder Squad – is trying to achieve. It’s a question that, while prompted by the novel’s hectic composition and bizarre length, is intensified by the broader debate about the aims and claims of genre fiction.

From the very start, French can be seen performing too many tasks at once, or at least conflicting tasks in close succession. The novel begins with Toby ruminating about his own good fortune – a mini-essay, laden with quirky hypothetical examples, that has more than a passing resemblance to Alanis Morissette’s song “Ironic”. But while this introductory riff announces luck as a theme, the novel also hinges on Toby taking his more-than-fair share of luck for granted, being complacent, myopic and primed for the humbling that arrives when, after a night out, he is brutally attacked in his home.

Two possible readings present themselves. Either Toby is being dishonest, and he had not in fact “always” recognised that he was a lucky person, in which case the novel cannot function as a narrative of reckoning and recovery since his vices would not have been amended. Or Toby is telling the truth, in which case he didn’t have all that much to learn. He may need to be told that his comfortable life is specifically based on a system of privilege, on being a good-looking white, middle-class, heterosexual male, but his description of himself as “a lucky person” hardly constitutes the deepest form of denial. Though he’s shocked when his luck suddenly seems to run out, it’s not as if he was ascribing his social or professional success to karma or effort.

But the reader is soon presented with a more foxing pair of possibilities. Recalling his opening reflections, Toby explains that he didn’t mean that he had been “lucky to have the Ivy House”, the summer home purchased by his family in the 1920s, in the “airy-fairy abstract” sense of having “such a lovely pretty place in my life!” He meant that the summer he spent there recuperating following the attack saved him from madness and even death. In fact, in his initial reverie, Toby explains that he has recently phoned his cousins, Susanna and Leon, to enquire whether they felt they had been lucky to have the Ivy House. Susanna replies that it was “an amazing place”.

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 If Toby is deficient not only in his reading of past events but in his understanding or memory of his own narration, it’s impossible to deduce what emotional or psychological process the book is supposed to be documenting. If it’s a case of the unreliable author – an even more common phenomenon than the unreliable narrator – then the book loses any claim to authority.

A second plot, introduced after almost 150 pages, only serves to further scramble the dynamics. Not long after Toby begins his stay at the Ivy House, a long-decomposed corpse is discovered in a tree on the grounds. Every member of the tight central cast – Toby, the cousins, their dying uncle Hugo – is under suspicion. It all touches on the luck question only glancingly while introducing a range of other, not-very-allied moral themes. Also floated – to what end who can say – is the possibility that Toby lost his mind following the attack and the whole thing is a hallucination or dream. He describes the drive to the Ivy House as “a lot like an acid trip”. His uncle Hugo’s doctors and the policemen investigating the body remind him of his doctors and the policemen investigating his break-in. More tenuously, the skull popping out of the wych elm reminds him of the masked invaders turning on the light in his living room.

Many of the novel’s problems can be traced to divided allegiances. French recently claimed that the difference between a mystery and a literary novel is simply one of marketing, but some of her best-known admirers – Stephen King, Gillian Flynn – have been keen to emphasise the distinction in order to claim she has straddled it. Successful acts of trespassing often occur from the other side, in the intricate plotting executed by literary writers, from Dickens to Ishiguro. It’s hard to think of an incontrovertible instance of a writer moving the other way, elevating crime fiction into literature. (Patricia Highsmith railed against her “suspense” labelling in a book called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction.)

Maybe this is because the literary writer employing genre tropes can be selective and narrowly self-interested – adding a sprig of the Newgate novel, a dash of the macabre – whereas the would-be literary thriller writer is assuming a far larger commitment. Every plot-point bears conceptual heft, the disclosure of a culprit will need to tick a multitude of boxes. There’s always a risk of being too functional or too otiose, too ruthless or too distracted.

The clash is evident in French’s use of establishing details. While her mystery-writer side lays the familiar traps – unelaborated references to “the skull”, “that night”, “all the other stuff” – the impulse to emphasise theme and character motivates Toby’s reference to calling Susanna and Leon about the Ivy House, thereby revealing that they are alive, relatively happy, on speaking terms with Toby – things that might otherwise have been in doubt as late as page 500.

French arguably came closer to producing the desired effect in earlier, more genre-bound books. Her first novel In the Woods – another story of a privileged, no-longer-young male narrator given cause to take stock – is well-written and socially conscious, but palpably ruled by plot (“We caught the Devlin case on a Wednesday morning in August”). When a book as multifariously ambitious as The Wych Elm fails to achieve the ideal fusion – every element balanced and justified and mutually enriching – it creates a pervasive feeling of doubt over where the author’s priorities lie; where, if anywhere, the reader should look to find pleasure or interest.

The Wych Elm
Tana French
Viking, 528pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash