Friday, June 23, 2017
June 23, 2017: Mysterious Beach Reads: Tana French
[For this year’s installment in my annual Beach Reads series, I wanted to focus on mystery authors and novels about which I’ve previously blogged in this space. Leading up a new post and author on Friday, and then one of my favorite crowd-sourced posts of the year—so add your Beach Read suggestions in comments, please!]
On two ways to AmericanStudy the talented and popular Irish mystery novelist.
Although Tana French was apparently born in Vermont (a fact I only learned while researching this post, for the record) and retains her American citizenship (ditto), I’m not going to pretend that her series of six (to date) bestselling mystery novels set in and around her longtime home city of Dublin isn’t deeply and crucially Irish. As virtually every post in this week’s series has reflected, mystery novels are almost always as much about their settings as their plots: Ross MacDonald’s Southern California, Tony Hillerman’s Southwest, and Attica Locke’s Houston are all central and crucial presences in their mysteries (as of course are Dupin’s Paris, Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, and many more). Moreover, one of Tana French’s most important and ingenious formal choices—to rotate the first-person narration of her books between different detectives in Dublin’s Murder Squad, introducing such detectives in earlier books and then shifting the narration to them in later ones—has allowed her novels to trace the distinct Irish backgrounds and situations, experiences and heritages, lives and identities, of her six detective-narrators just as fully as those of her murder victims and their worlds. I’m no IrishStudier (obviously), but I’d be hard-pressed to imagine that any writer has captured 21st century Ireland with more breadth and depth than has French in her stunning series.
Yet French’s novels can and do still speak to us AmericanStudiers, and here I’ll highlight one thematic and one formal such transatlantic connection. Each of the six novels has dealt with different central themes; while all of them could be productively linked to American contexts, I would argue that that’s particularly the case with her best novel to date, Broken Harbour (2012). Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that the crimes and mysteries of Broken Harbour (including those involving the detective-narrator as well, as always with French) unfold in a family, home, and community economically and psychologically devastated by the mortgage and financial crises of 2008. One of French’s greatest skills is her ability to take such social and cultural issues and connect them to universal human questions and themes, and Broken links that post-2008 historical moment to a layered and powerful examination of both the ideals and the limits (and of course the dangers) of home and family. I would link all those aspects of French’s amazing novel to a parallel but more distinctly American text, Karl Taro Greenfeld’s psychological and horror thriller short story “Horned Men” (2012). [Greenfeld’s 2015 novel The Subprimes seems to mine the same vein, but I haven’t had a chance to read that yet.] On their own, but even more as a pairing, French’s and Greenfeld’s stories present and plumb the very human horrors in these recent histories.
French’s formal use of the rotating first-person narrators can also be interestingly connected to American contexts and mysteries. As I wrote in the post on Lethem and O’Brien, first-person narration is always a tricky element of mystery fiction, and French’s novels largely sidestep the questions I raised in that post; I don’t believe we’re supposed to see these narrators as writing their stories, but they’re clearly remembering them from some unspecified future point (they consistently, purposefully use foreshadowing, for example). But what I’m particularly interested in is the way that French uses her first-person narrations to explore the personal and psychological sides to these police detectives. As always, feel free to correct me, dear readers, but my sense of mystery novels is that they tend more often to present police protagonists with third-person narration (as does Hillerman), and other protagonists (whether private detectives like Lew Archer or sidekicks like Dr.Watson) with first-person narration. If that is indeed the case, it would seem to me that it might relate to our sense of police officers as public figures, ones whose roles are less tied to their private or personal identities than might be those of private detectives or others. Whereas French’s narrators and novels make clear that the lines between private and public, personal and professional, are as blurry and ambiguous for police detectives as they are for all of us.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other Beach Read nominees, mysterious or otherwise, you’d share?