The First Lady of Irish Crime: Tana French

Author Tana French pictured in Dublin's Grafton St.
Author Tana French pictured in Dublin's Grafton St.

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
August / September 2012

Tana French’s bestselling crime novels keep readers in suspense and mark this actress-turned-author as an astute observer of Irish life.

She has been dubbed “the First Lady of Irish Crime,” drawing comparisons to Patricia Cornwell and even Agatha Christie. And yet, if Tana French had not moved to a new apartment a few years back, her literary career might never have gotten off the ground.

“I needed a day job,” French explained during a recent phone interview, from her home in Dublin, before she embarked on an American tour for her latest thriller, Broken Harbor (Viking).

“I found work at an archeological dig site,” said French, who at the time was between acting gigs. While working, it struck her that this archeological site might be a wonderful place for children to play. But she was also struck by another, more disturbing thought.

“What if three children went in to play and only one came out?”

The idea was so powerful to French that she wrote it down on a scrap of paper – and then, more or less, forgot about the whole thing. That is, until she was later packing up to move and found the slip of paper.

“That’s what became In the Woods,” exclaims French.

A Memorable Debut
In the Woods (2007) was one of the most memorable Irish literary debuts in recent history. It was a runaway best-seller and won numerous awards, including the Edgar Award for best debut novel. In the Woods revolves around a 12-year-old Dublin boy named Adam Ryan, who becomes a media sensation when he and two friends go to play in the titular woods, but only Adam emerges. He is bloody and quivering and has no memory of what exactly happened to his friends, who are presumed dead.

Adam (who changes his name to Rob to separate himself from the sensational crime) goes on to become a Dublin detective, and is asked to investigate an all-too-similar crime: the murder of another 12-year-old at the very site where Adam/Rob was found shaking and bleeding all those years ago. Complicating the investigation, aside from Detective Ryan’s past, is his relationship with his partner, Cassie Maddox, which alternates between professional and romantic. All of this gives French plenty of emotional and psychological, not to mention criminal, material to work with.

Readers and critics alike raved over In the Woods.

Booklist dubbed it “a superior novel about cops, murder, memory, relationships, and modern Ireland. . .booming economically and fixated on the shabbiest aspects of American popular culture.”

Publishers Weekly praised French for expertly walking “the line between police procedural and psychological thriller,” and added that “Ryan and Maddox are empathetic and flawed heroes, whose partnership and friendship elevate the narrative beyond a gory tale of murdered children and repressed childhood trauma.” Kirkus Reviews said In the Woods was “a readable, non-formulaic police procedural with a twist. It’s ultimately the confession of a damaged man.”

A Gruesome Murder
Two more best sellers followed: The Likeness, which revolved around Cassie Maddox, Detective Ryan’s partner in In the Woods; and Faithful Place, which followed Frank Mackey, a character in The Likeness.

Not surprisingly, French’s new novel, Broken Harbor, allows a peripheral character from The Likeness – a rigid, rule-bound associate of Frank Mackey’s, named Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy – to take center stage.

Mick and his partner Richie have been asked to investigate a gruesome murder scene at Broken Harbor, a half-developed “luxury” neighborhood that has languished since Ireland’s economic boom went bust.

The entire Spain family has been assaulted, leaving the two young children as well as their father dead. The mother is hospitalized in critical condition.  During the course of the investigation, we learn that Kennedy and his own family have a past in Broken Harbor, having spent time there when they were kids. Ultimately, Scorcher must work to solve the Spain family killings, handle his fragile sister, and resolve conflicts within himself, all while coming to terms with 21st-century Ireland, where the Celtic Tiger is a distant memory whose brief life and painful death still loom large in the Irish landscape.

“Ireland is a very young country that has been very poor,” French says, when asked to discuss how the economic collapse has affected the Irish. “You’re talking about a country where it’s been burned into our consciousness that you must own your own land,” she adds, referring to past horrors perpetrated by English landlords.

Indeed, the real estate bust looms over the characters in Broken Harbor just as the clash of past and present loomed over In the Woods, where battles were fought when a proposed highway was slated to run through an ancient burial site. French has rightly earned a reputation as not only a brilliant writer of psychological thrillers, but also as an astute chronicler of modern Ireland.

Interesting, then, that French was not born in Ireland.

An International Childhood
French was actually born in Vermont.  Her father, an Irish American with roots in Galway, worked in international economic development, so she spent time in a wide range of countries, including Italy and Malawi. But when she started spending time in Ireland as a teenager, she knew she’d found a special place.

“We were coming back [to Ireland] for summers when I was a teenager. I started to think, ‘I like this place, I like the people, I like the sense of humor.’ ” She adds: “I think at 14 or 15, it was sinking in that this was actually – and it seems a little cheeky to say this – but it is where I felt at home.”

Ultimately, Ireland “seemed like a natural place to go to college.” French studied acting at Trinity, and met her Dublin-born husband, actor Anthony Breatnach.

French notes that the economic peril currently facing so many Irish families could easily have hit her own.

“My generation were encouraged to go out and buy those houses,” French says, before adding – fortunately, as it turns out – that the incomes of two up-and-coming actors didn’t quite provide the funds necessary to invest in Irish real estate during the boom years.

According to French, the differences between acting and writing are not so stark.

“Acting is excellent training for writing,” she says. “I was preparing to become a writer while I was acting, without knowing it. What I’m supposed to be doing [as an actress] is seeing the play or the world through one character’s eyes, through his needs, biases and preconceptions.”

French and Breatnach had their first child two years ago, which is why it took French a little bit longer to write Broken Harbor. Of course, there is another reason: French does not write short books. All four of her books have weighed in at the 400–500 page length.

“Everyone – including me – would be delighted [if she wrote shorter books],” French admits. “I don’t have ideas that seem to fit into the length. Those are not the ideas that pop up.”

No “Hugs and Hot Chocolate”
Scorcher Kennedy is yet another brilliant creation, a no-nonsense investigator considered among the best in the murder squad.

“I don’t feel sorry for anyone I run across via work,” Kennedy says at one point. “Pity is fun, it lets you have a great wank about what a wonderful guy you are, but it does bugger-all good to the people you’re feeling sorry for. The second you start getting gooey about what they’ve been through, your eye comes off the ball.  You get weak. Next thing you know you can’t get out of bed in the morning because you can’t face going to work, and I have trouble seeing how that does anyone any good. I put my time and energy into bringing answers, not hugs and hot chocolates.”

But Kennedy’s hard exterior slowly crumbles as demands on his personal and professional life mount.

Interestingly, Tana French’s rise to prominence comes just as the world is discovering a host of famous Irish crime writers, including Michael and John Connolly, Ken Bruen, Adrian McKinty and Benjamin Black (John Banville’s pen name).

“There have been many reasons noted for the current explosion in Irish crime fiction,” Declan Hughes writes in his excellent recent book, Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Fiction in the 21st Century. Hughes credits “the work of authors such as Maeve Binchy, Roddy Doyle and Marian Keyes, writers who stepped out of the long shadow cast by the Irish literary tradition. . .to prove that an appetite existed for stories that were more relevant to the day-to-day concerns of a whole new generation of readers.”

A “Sucker for Beautiful Writing”
As for French, she believes the distinction between “literary” and “popular” fiction is blurring.

“The borderline is not as fixed as it used to be,” she says. “Crime books almost inevitably deal with what’s in the national consciousness. I don’t go out to deliberately explore social issues (but) crime is always dealing with the most high-stakes thing in any society.”

Up next for French, after her American reading tour, is another mystery. She will return to the character Stephen Moran from Faithful Place. As a writer, French says she always knew she would be drawn to the thriller genre.

“We have a fascination with mysteries.  I think that’s one of the things that make us human,” she says. “We’re more attracted to mystery than to anything else.”

And though she took a detour into acting, writing was always in French’s blood.

“My father read ‘The Wind in the Willows’ to me when I was six,” she says.  “I’ve been a sucker for beautiful writing ever since.”

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