Fans of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad novels have undoubtedly been eager to discover the protagonist of her fifth book, The Secret Place. The wait is over, and this time Detective Stephen Moran takes the spotlight in this clever, fast-paced mystery set at an all-girls Irish boarding school.
We caught up with French and chatted about her love of crime fiction, why everyone should read To Kill a Mockingbird and more in a 7 questions interview.
Describe your book in one sentence.
Detective Stephen Moran gets his longed-for shot at the Murder squad when 16-year-old Holly Mackey brings him a postcard she’s found on the secrets board at her fancy boarding school: a photograph of a murdered boy, with the caption, “I know who killed him.”
Your Dublin Murder Squad series shifts narrators with each book. Why did you choose this structure?
I love reading the traditional series that follow one detective through all the ups and downs of life—P.D. James’s Dalgliesh books, for example—but I’m not interested in writing them. I’m more interested in writing about huge crossroads—moments when the narrator finds himself in a situation where whatever he decides to do will shape the rest of his life. The thing is, though, people don’t get those life-changing moments on a regular basis. So when I started thinking about a second book, I realized that I had three options: keep dumping my poor narrator into huge life-changing situations every couple of years, which not only is pretty implausible but would probably give him a nervous breakdown by about book four; go with the traditional framework of following him through more minor ups and downs, which, again, didn’t interest me; or switch narrator. So I went with the third option: I used a supporting character from In the Woods as the narrator of my next book, The Likeness, and so on.
This also means that I get to focus on different themes in each book, without losing the intensity of the narrator’s connection to the themes. For example, The Secret Place is about friendship, secrets, identity and how it’s defined—and those matter immensely to Stephen Moran, the narrator. For most of my other narrators, those issues aren’t all-important, so the events of this book wouldn’t have anything like the impact on them that they do on Stephen. Instead, their books spin around the themes that matter most deeply to them.
What did you enjoy most about writing from Detective Moran’s perspective?
Contented characters are mostly boring. Reading about someone who’s totally contented and secure is like watching a guy sprawled on his sofa shooting Playstation baddies and eating Doritos: He’s happy, but it’s not exactly fascinating viewing. Stephen Moran is the opposite of that guy: He’s restless right to the bone—constantly searching for the mythical something that will magically transform him into what he dreams of being. I enjoyed writing someone like that, because his lack of a real sense of himself colors the way he sees everything. When he has to work with Antoinette Conway, he’s wary of her because she’s tough and rough-edged, and he doesn’t want to find himself defined by that, even by association. When the case takes him into an elite boarding school, he loves it for the beauty and elegance that he longs to be part of. When their investigation leads them deeper and deeper into the web of friendships among the girls, he’s captivated—and, ultimately, changed—by the way these friendships define and transform them. I liked writing the ways that Stephen’s search for definition drove him forward.
What do you love most about crime fiction?
I love mysteries. I always have. I think this is one of the fundamental things that make us human—our fascination with mysteries, real or fictional, solved or unsolved—and the whole crime genre has grown from that fascination. The genre isn’t just about mysteries and their solutions: it’s about the complex techniques and systems that we’ve developed in order to solve them, about the dedication and passion we pour into that process, the experts who dedicate their lives to it, the ways we succeed or fail at it, about the profound effects mysteries have on those who get caught up in them from every angle . . . This genre is a paean to the crucial part that mysteries play within our lives, and I love that.
I also love the level of insight that crime fiction can offer. Murder happens in every time and place, but the specifics are shaped by the fundamental preoccupations of that society—its deepest fears, its priorities, its most intense desires, its history, its darknesses. In the great crime novels—Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, say, or Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves—the murder becomes a window into the dark heart of the society where it happens.
How do you conquer writer’s block?
Touch wood, I don’t think I’ve ever had full-on writer’s block—the kind where a writer is paralyzed to the point where he or she can’t get anything down on paper—but I do get days or weeks when nothing works, I don’t get anywhere near enough written and what I do write is either awful or pointless (oh, look, it’s a cheesy dream sequence and four pages of irrelevant waffle about some character’s childhood). I fight it with rewrites, more rewrites, long walks and caffeine. Lots of caffeine.
Name one book that you think everyone should read.
To Kill a Mockingbird. There are other books that I love even more, in spite of their flaws, but I can’t think of any book that’s so close to perfection. To explore issues like classism and racism without ever being sanctimonious or preachy, to show the story through the eyes of a child without ever getting cutesy or patronizing, to weave together all those separate little storylines without ever letting them feel sloppy or disjointed–it’s a rare author who can manage even one of those, and Harper Lee makes them all look effortless. And that’s before I even start on the writing and the characterization and the atmosphere . . . No wonder she never wrote another book. Where do you go from there?
I’m working on my sixth book, and Antoinette Conway is the narrator this time. She and Stephen are partners in the Murder squad now, but she’s still not getting on well with the rest of the squad, to put it mildly. They pull a case that at first seems like a routine domestic murder, but gradually they realize that someone within their own squad is working against them—and they need to find out whether that’s because someone is desperate to get rid of Conway, or whether there’s more going on.
Author photo by Kyran O'Brien