- 26 Feb 19
Having earned considerable acclaim for her hugely popular Dublin Murder Squad series, crime novelist Tana French has now penned her first standalone thriller, the gripping The Wych Elm.
"I was interested in seeing the whole murder mystery process from another viewpoint,” says crime writer Tana French of her latest novel, The Wych Elm. “I’d looked at if from a detective’s point of view six times, and I kept thinking about all the other people who are involved in a murder investigation. You’ve got witnesses, suspects, victims and perpetrators – the whole process has to look very different from their point of view. I try to present each throughout the book.”
The Wych Elm is French’s first standalone thriller, following the six instalments of her acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series. It is the story of young Dubliner Toby, whose seemingly perfect life unravels when a body is found in a tree on his family property.
The story was inspired by a true-life tale, brought to her attention by her brother.
“It’s all his fault!” she laughs. “He sent me a link to the true story of Bella In The Wych Elm. In 1943, these kids were playing in a woods in England, and found a skull in a hole in a tree-trunk that was part of the skeleton of a young woman. She had been put there about 18 months earlier and nobody was sure how she died. Graffiti has appeared at intervals around the area saying Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? He sent me this with a note that said, ‘This sounds like a Tana French novel’. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or disturbed – but he was right!”
French found the writing process both scary and liberating.
“It was most like writing my first book In The Woods,” she notes, “because in the others, I had already set up the framework of what the Dublin Murder Squad was like: who the State pathologist is, what the hierarchy is. It had a bunch of parameters that I couldn’t really break, but with this one anything went, and that’s very liberating. You’re feeling your way, like it’s your first book again.”
Before starting The Wych Elm, Tana had been exploring the idea that good fortune in life might actually restrict – rather than enhance – our capacity for empathy.
“I was really lucky to have a happy, loving childhood,” she reflects. “And while that was great, when I was a teenager, if somebody told me about having a really awful childhood, there was a part of me going, ‘Surely it can’t be that bad? They must be exaggerating a bit?’
“Not because I didn’t trust the person, but because it was so far outside my frame of reference, it didn’t seem real to me. When I grew up, I copped on that my reality wasn’t the only one. I started thinking, ‘What if you were lucky in every way? What would that do to your capacity for empathy? And for realising that other people are living in a very different reality from you?’ So when my brother sent the story, I thought, ‘What if there was a guy like that who has been lucky in every way – until, one day, his luck runs out?’”
Luck – in terms of the class we are born into and its associated privileges – is also under the microscope.
“The resources you have at your disposal make an enormous difference to your life, but also to our expectations,” says Tana. “There is a part in the book where Toby and a friend, who is working class, get into trouble in school, but are punished differently. Toby, being middle class, walks into every situation assuming it is going to be geared towards him, but his mate who has had to struggle for everything, knows that society is not geared towards him. Because his expectations are different, people pick up on that, so he’s playing life on a very different setting.”
French’s stories have seen her dubbed ‘the queen of Irish crime writing’. The first and second installment of the Dublin Murder Squad series will be coming to BBC One soon, with a cast that includes Killian Scott, Sarah Greene and Tom Vaughan Lawlor.
“I haven’t been part of that, so I have no idea what’s going to come out!” she says. “It’s actually a re-imagining, not a straight adaptation, so I decided against visiting the set – I would just be stressing everybody out. So I said, ‘Listen you guys know what you are doing’.”
Is she worried how her work will fare in the hands of others?
“I used to be an actor, so I know how hard it is to get work,” says French. “So for me, the idea of actors and crew getting work here off something that I initiated is amazing. I love that feeling. They are all great actors, and there are some great people involved, so whatever comes out, I have a feeling it’s going to be good.”
For the moment, French is hard at work on her next thriller.
“It’s another standalone, but it hasn’t taken shape to the point where I can really say anything about it,” she says. “The Wych Elm is very much a doorstop and it’s quite heavy on the introspection, so I’m going in another direction. I have always admired writers who are succinct and tight, and who can do things through action, with little introspection. So I’m trying to write something that is much more compact, where every sentence does its job and has enough weight that you don’t need as many of them. I hate to say this, because I can see myself in a couple of years handing in something that is 150,000 words long going, ‘I know I said it would be short – but this is short by my standards!’”
We’ll still savour every page regardless….