With cunning psychological prowess, Tana French’s first standalone crime novel after six Dublin Murder Squad mysteries plumbs the recesses of our darkest thoughts.
In Dublin, on an almost-Halloween evening, Toby Hennessy, his girlfriend and his cousins are hanging out at Ivy House, Uncle Hugo’s grand abode, asking each other, “What’s the worst thing you ever did?” The game is a way of tiptoeing around how each of them may be connected to the discovery of a skull in the wych elm tree in the Ivy House garden.
The macabre discovery is not the only recent misfortune in the Hennessy family. Uncle Hugo has a brain tumor, and Toby nearly dies when he’s attacked in his flat, possibly in connection to a scandal at the art gallery where he works. The plot surrounding the skull comes into focus through Toby’s murky lens of pain, frustration and the medications required after this tragic combination of events. Toby has always been lucky, a handsome charmer who can talk his way out of scrapes and befriend just about anyone. But who is he if his luck has run out?
French rips open the chasm between Toby’s before and after, viscerally describing his fear as “dark, misshapen, taloned, hanging somewhere above and behind me waiting for its next moment to drop onto my back and dig in deep.” Add to Toby’s troubles his worried girlfriend and sensitive, conniving cousins, and it becomes apparent that The Witch Elm is about more than the crime behind the skull; it is about what happens when a great upheaval cracks open life’s shell and reveals one’s true potential.
With this thorough search into the criminal mind, French reaffirms her place as one of our finest crime novelists. Her characters become as familiar as family yet as unpredictable as strangers, creating a chilling sense that everything could shift at any time.