Here’s a things-go-bad story Thomas Hardy could have written in his prime, although the Hardy version would probably contain no lines such as ‘I looked like the lowlife in a zombie movie who isn’t going to make it past the first half-hour’ … So far, so Agatha Christie (who is even name-checked in passing). You have the murder victim, another skanger (although a rich one) whose passing we need not mourn; you have the small pool of possible suspects; you have the manor house with the walled-in garden where the body was discovered. But an Agatha Christie novel might run 250 pages or so. The Witch Elm is twice that length, and I’m relieved to report that those added pages aren’t just filler ... Characters aside, the book is lifted by French’s nervy, almost obsessive prose. Although they are of different sexes and nationalities, when I read Tana French I’m always reminded of David Goodis. She has that same need to go over it, and over it and over it again, like a farmer who can’t plow the field just once but must go at it from every point of the compass, sweating over the wheel of his tractor, not satisfied until every clod has been crumbled away.”
Whose skull is it? Why is it in the tree? Who has had access to the garden, and why can’t Toby remember what he needs to remember? ... The Witch Elm is a profound reconsideration of power dynamics between the privileged and the less so, drawing the reader into an uneasy alliance with the former. It’s also a thrilling, absorbing mystery, sprinkled liberally with red herrings and culminating in a profoundly satisfying, if totally unforeseeable, ending.
The title tree in The Witch Elm, the Irish writer Tana French’s best and most intricately nuanced novel yet, is a mysterious character in its own right. Stately, 200 years old and burned into the collective memory of the Hennessys, this tree embodies the family’s idea of stability. It anchors a garden so lush that as you sink into this book, you can practically feel tendrils twisting around you ... [French] is in a class by herself as a superb psychological novelist for whom plot is secondary ... Death and mystery hover over the book, and French has some serious fun with twisting such conventions of the mystery genre as the locked-room puzzle ... French’s intense interest in identity and self-deception might make this a slow-building book for some. But if you read her as carefully as you should, it’s a seductively detailed start in which every bit of dailiness is made to matter ... French’s pacing goes pedal-to-the-metal for the book’s last section. Get ready for the whiplash brought on by its final twists and turns. Despite the speed, none of the final revelations feel rushed or artificial.
The Witch Elm is Tana French’s first standalone, following six Dublin Murder Squad mysteries. It’s as good as the best of those novels, if not better ... This latest work, privilege is French’s subject; more specifically, the relationship between privilege and what we perceive as luck. Who might we become if the privileges we take for granted were suddenly ripped away? ... The Witch Elm, thanks to a layered network of subplots and the increasing fragmentation of Toby himself. In many ways, the most interesting question the novel asks is not whodunit; it’s whether, and how, Toby will come back together again.
The Witch Elm is not just spooked but spooky. It arrives at precisely the moment when many of its readers will be wondering about the inner lives of men much like her narrator, Toby Hennessy; its timeliness alone is unsettling ... Toby’s awakening parallels the experiences of many men like him in the age of #MeToo: guys previously oblivious to the mistreatment going on all around them because they haven’t witnessed it or been its target. Surely, Toby, thinks over and over, things can’t have been as bad as all that. And over and over, he’s proven wrong ... even if Toby isn’t on the Dublin Murder Squad, the events in The Witch Elm spur his great, transformative upheaval. The discovery they force on him revolves around one question: Whose story is this? By the time French is done retooling the mystery form—it seems there’s nothing she can’t make it do, no purpose she can’t make it serve—the answer is clear: hers and hers alone.
The mystery is satisfying, and Detective Rafferty formidably sly in even this half-screen capacity, but the most impressive trick French pulls off is with Toby, maintaining the reader’s sympathies for him despite his alienating character traits. It’s not easy to feel sympathy for a character without empathy, nor is it fashionable to feel sympathy toward the poster child for white male privilege. And yet, the first-person POV encourages a reader’s alliance, and even though it’s tempting to lean in to schadenfreude once Toby’s luck begins to turn, the severity of his beating and his raw vulnerability make any impulse to gloat feel hollow, unseemly ... Can empathy be learned under such extreme circumstances? If that’s even the question, it’s one of (at least) two left open for discussion in an ending rich with irony, coincidence, and ambiguous possibilities. Toby’s baffled, helpless 'I’m not the same person anymore' is a true statement, but he’s left suspended in a delicious Tana French non-answer after experiencing a much more complicated metamorphosis than Ebenezer Scrooge’s straightforward opportunity to change his ways.
That the skeleton isn’t discovered until a third of the way through the 500-page novel testifies to French’s talent at immersing readers in mysteries that go beyond those of old bones ... French often writes about the mutability of memory and questions of identity ... Expected, too, are complex characters, spot-on dialogue, an atmospheric setting. But the pacing is slow and the tone reflective as [protagonist] Toby puzzles through the fragmented past.
It’s very eerie; it’s also quite hefty and static for long stretches. Whether you find the novel satisfying will probably depend on how much you care about action vs. atmosphere. French expertly crafts a cloud cover of thickening menace throughout this extended narrative, but the storm doesn’t break until the very end. By then, even the most patient reader may be excused for being exhausted from all the bleak moodiness that preceded it ... It would be nearly impossible for any novelist to conjure up a plot payoff that justifies all this anticipation. French tries, but the climactic revelations here inevitably seem too little, too late.
Very few of the characters completely gel, either through description or in the reader's head. Sometimes being thrown into the middle of things ratchets up the tension — but here, in a novel where the body isn't discovered for hundreds of pages, it feels off-kilter ... Even if French skimps on character development and overdoes the lead up, her atmosphere and dialogue will keep you reading, reading, reading ... The last 100 pages of The Witch Elm feel like the heart of the novel, and although that's a bit unexpected, well, it might be what French intended.
While the overall pacing is fairly slow, French does pick things up a bit as the story unfolds. That said, even with the intrigue early on, the opening pages feel a bit dull at times as the author takes her time developing the characters and setup. Once things are ready to roll, though, French delivers one shock after another, building the tension as the final act takes off, then goes out with a bang. Other than a slow start, which Tana French makes up for and then some, The Witch Elm twists and turns its way to a shocking ending that most readers will never see coming.
... terrific ... The way in which French turns the unreliable narrator ploy on its head is genius. And the scenes in which Toby is interrogated by the drolly insinuating police Detective Rafferty undercut the squalid events with humor. No fan of French’s great Dublin Murder Squad series will want her to be on leave from it for long, but if she keeps producing head-spinners like this, many of us will be up for making that sacrifice.
Stepping outside her Dublin Murder Squad series for the first time, French has constructed a sort of discursive, densely layered family drama disguised as a mystery ... The final revelations in The Witch Elm are startling, even if they don’t quite justify its 500-page length; a whodunit far more memorable for the why than the who.
... like all of [Frnech's] novels, [The Witch Elm] becomes an incisive psychological portrait embedded in a mesmerizing murder mystery ... The Witch Elm is over 500 pages long, and it takes a bit more patience than French’s police procedurals, which by their nature offer more suspense and intricate detective work. It’s immensely talky, the story unfolding over several long conversations without a ton of present-day action... But the dialogue is riveting, every line of it necessary, every scene just vibrant and dripping with juice. French has a deep understanding of her characters, and she doesn’t seem to have it in her to write a bad sentence. She could make a Target run feel tense and revelatory, but it’s a real gift to have such a talented, detail-oriented writer tapping into the narrative bounty of good old-fashioned murder.
... a richly engrossing mystery ... The Witch Elm is a rich, immersive, and spine-chilling book, because Tana French is great at what she does and she knows how to tell a story. But it’s also a scathing and insightful deconstruction of social privilege, coming from a master of the form at the height of her powers.
Questions of luck and social privilege, fate and free will, empathy and solipsism are woven throughout this discursive narrative whose detail-rich sequences lead to psychological insights and unexpected revelations.
If The Witch Elm is her most compelling and urgent novel in years, it’s not entirely because of the plot — a somewhat convoluted mystery in which the whodunit matters only slightly — but because French’s masterful character study is absolutely riveting and timely. She delves deep into the point of view of a young advantaged man whose world opens up in ugly ways ... the nuance that Tana French is so good at all but disappears. This is not a complaint — at this stage perhaps we can all do with being hit over the head repeatedly with the injustices.
French delivers a spellbinding stand-alone novel carefully crafted in her unique, darkly elegant prose style ... Issues of identity permeate the narrative. Toby’s previous forays using fake social-media accounts become an issue for the police. Welcome comic relief comes via Hugo’s genealogy investigation service, now in high gear because of Americans confounded by their Irish DNA test results. Toby finds himself wondering how much he had ever really known about his family, now so disconcerted that their misery is 'like some rampaging animal,' and the reader gets pulled into the vortex right along with them.
With cunning psychological prowess, Tana French’s first standalone crime novel after six Dublin Murder Squad mysteries plumbs the recesses of our darkest thoughts ... 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.
At a basic plot level, The Witch Elm is, in its very bones, an immersive, thrilling mystery novel. It is a sprawling 509 pages, none of which feel unnecessary. The book takes its time to build its world and its intricacies, with revelations that, even as the novel accelerates to reach its climax, never feel rushed or convenient. But the real charm and success of this novel comes from its ability to create a compelling mystery that is entwined with narrative structure, which gives rise to real questions about identity, the nature of self-perception, and the limitations of being in your own head.
In this new novel, French unshackles herself from writing a mystery through the eyes of those paid to solve it. By doing so, she’s able to go deeper into the psyche of an individual and his shifting worldview ... What’s for certain is that readers can count their lucky stars to get to spend time absorbed in a new Tana French novel. Despite stepping away from the series that has made her so popular, this is still a mystery that deeply satisfies.
The narrative is fueled by some of the same themes French has explored in the past. It’s reminiscent of The Likeness (2008) in the way it challenges the idea of identity as a fixed and certain construct. And the unreliability of memory was a central issue in her first novel, In the Woods (2007). The pace is slow, but the story is compelling, and French is deft in unraveling this book’s puzzles. Readers will see some revelations coming long before Toby, but there are some shocking twists, too.