#Review: THE WITCH ELM, by Tana French

I am a big fan of Tana French’s books. I have everything she’s ever written, she’s shown up on my 10 Best Books list at the end of the year at least a couple of times, and for the last several titles I have been debating upgrading her to the list of authors whose books I buy in hardcover. The only thing that was preventing me from doing it was that all of her previous books have been part of a series, and I am the type of person for whom it matters that the books in the series wouldn’t match on the shelf. But then The Witch Elm came out, and it was standalone, and I finally didn’t have to wait an extra year to read a new Tana French book after it came out.

The Witch Elm, shockingly, is fucking terrible and you should not read it. It hurts me to write that, but it’s true. It’s not gonna keep me from buying her next book or anything– if you write six books that I love you get to write one that I don’t without me abandoning you– but it’s terrible, and terrible in the right way that I’m going to actually write a negative review of it, which is something I don’t do all that often.

There will be spoilers. Of everything. Be prepared for that. Have a separator line, in fact, in case you want to just take my word for it and bow out.

Actually, hell, let’s start with the promo copy on the dust jacket:

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

Here’s Toby’s entire personality: Toby is a privileged white guy. He is a dude. Picture a dude who has never had to deal with the consequences of his actions in his entire stupid white life and you know everything you need to know about Toby, including that he is terrible. He’s not a “happy-go-lucky charmer,” he’s just a privileged white dude, and literally everything he thinks and does in the book is a direct result of his privilege and his whiteness. The Witch Elm is 509 pages long and it takes goddamn near 200 pages for Toby to get his ass beat and for that skull to get found, and he spends every second of the book feeling sorry for himself, because the entire story is told in retrospect– this is not a present-tense type of first-person novel, it’s one of those where it’s clear that the narrator is talking about things that have already happened, so Toby spends every second of the book feeling sorry for himself. He is unbearable. I don’t know that I’ve ever disliked a first-person narrator in a novel as much as I dislike Toby.

So, 200 pages for the story to start. 100 of the last 120 pages– a hundred God damn pages– are literally nothing but characters sitting in chairs explaining things to each other. The big explanation of who murdered the kid they found in the tree is eighty pages long, and then there is another 20 pages or so of a detective explaining other things to Toby, and an exciting sequence where a stray cat is successfully fed some chicken, and then Toby– spoiler alert again, I guess– Toby, who has been suffering from PTSD for the entire book and has not been taking care of himself or eating (he has literally been sitting in a disintegrating old house and going nuts for about a week when this happens) beats the (healthy, well-fed, professional police officer) detective to death, and then the last 20 pages of the book are about how Toby doesn’t go to jail for that murder but goes to a mental health facility and he’s been explaining the whole book at you from his hospital bed and he’s better now except somewhere along the line I guess he finally lost his job? So keep feeling sorry for him.

300 pages of this 509-page book contain no worthwhile story at all. This book has no right to be longer than about 320 pages or so. There is so much talking. So much.

And there’s only a mystery in the first place because Toby has amnesia from the ass-beating, because of course he does, and the way amnesia works is you don’t remember if you murdered someone ten years ago, so that the whole book can be structured around Toby figuring out that other people think he killed the guy whose skull they found in the tree, and Toby wondering if maybe he really did kill the guy whose skull they found in the tree, and then– surprise!– Toby didn’t kill the guy, but there’s a false confession thrown in there by his dying uncle, who wants to save everybody and maybe uncle Hugo saw the murder too and just never did anything about it until heroically making sure the body got found and throwing himself on the grenade before his brain cancer gets him.

The entire book could have been avoided if someone had thought to put a flat rock on top of the hole in the tree that they stuffed the body into. Or some concrete.

There are lots of “You thought this was what happened? That was a dumb thing for you to think” moments, where one character tells another character– usually Toby– that whatever theory they had about the murder is dumb. Only the reader has already thought “gee, that’s a dumb thing for you to think, Toby,” and been annoyed by it, so having the characters explain why the plot of the book is dumb– never ever write a scene where your characters are complaining about your plot being stupid– is not actually helpful or revelatory, but instead increases the reader’s dislike toward the book.

If Tana French hadn’t written this, I would have put it down before hitting the 100-page mark, and I’d never have reviewed it, because a book has to disappoint me somehow in addition to being bad for me to take the time to write a bad review. This is not the worst book I’ve read this year– that dubious honor still belongs to Robert McCannon’s Swan Song— but it is 100% the most disappointing. I still think you should read all of the Dublin Murder Squad books, because they’re awesome, but pretend she never wrote this one.


20821043.jpgI have, I think, read all of Tana French’s books, or at least I’ve read all of her Dublin Mystery Squad books, and if I find out she’s got novels outside of that series I’ll be picking them up with a quickness.  The series is interesting; each book follows a different detective in the Murder division of the Dublin police force across a single case, frequently introducing the protagonist of the next book along the way.  Folks keep showing up, of course, and one of the key witnesses in this book is the daughter of the protagonist of the third book in the series.

THE SECRET PLACE is set at an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Dublin, and the entire book takes place across a single day, when a clue from a cold case ends up on Detective Stephen Moran’s desk.  Moran takes the evidence to the investigating detective on the Murder squad and the story heads off from there.

It’s a murder mystery, of course, so I’m not going to get into details, but what fascinated me about this book is that the detectives spend the day interrogating high school girls about a murder that took place on the school’s grounds the year before.  There are eight different kids in two separate cliques that occupy the bulk of the book’s attention, and as a teacher who has spent a lot of time having to question young women about how some particular incident of bullying or meanness or boyfriend-stealing went down, I can say with some degree of authority that French captures the shifting alliances and web of lies one can run into in these circumstances perfectly.  I read probably the last 300 pages of this in two big gulps last night and this morning because I didn’t want to put the book down.  All of French’s previous books have been good– there’s a reason I’ve kept buying them– but this one upgrades her to “buy in hardback” status, I think.

(The other thing, by the way, is that one of the books rattling around in my head is a murder mystery– there’s a sci-fi twist to it, of course, this being me, but I was trying to read this as a writer too, to try and dissect how she does things.  The book has convinced me that I should never try to write a mystery because this is too goddamned good and I can’t touch it.  Frustrating to me, great for French.)

At any rate, this is the first entry on the shortlist for 2016’s best new reads.  You should check it out.