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The Witch Elm


The Witch Elm

Do not go into THE WITCH ELM with any preconceptions. Those who have been accustomed to anticipating Tana French’s biennial presentations featuring the Dublin Murder Squad will have to wait a bit longer this time. This is her first stand-alone work, which is more of a family study than a murder mystery, and takes its sweet time studying the politics and crannies produced by the uneasy rubbing of relatives getting up on each other. That said, there is a mystery at the heart of the story. Actually, there are two that dip, swirl and intersect through the plot, though only one carries the weight of primary focus.

French takes a good deal of the first third of the book to set up the pieces on the chessboard she has created. The narration is handled by Toby Hennessy, a somewhat happy-go-lucky sort for whom things happen easily and whose broken-field running ability through life is regarded with admiration and envy in equal parts among those who know him. When we meet Toby, he is gainfully employed as a public relations representative for an art gallery and has managed to avoid getting fired by coming up with a solution to his own screwup. However, following a night of alcohol-fueled celebration with close friends, Toby’s stable trajectory is rudely interrupted when he attempts to foil a burglary of his home. The intruders beat him senseless and leave him for dead. He eventually recovers but is left with significant neurological damage --- possibly permanent --- that include left-sided motor deficiencies, as well as recent and remote memory problems.

"[T]hose who enjoy slow yet steady pacing and character development will find much to love here and should place this title on their must-read list."

Toby learns shortly thereafter that his beloved Uncle Hugo has brain cancer, and relocates to the sprawling family property known as Ivy House to function as a companion as Hugo’s condition slowly deteriorates. He is accompanied by his girlfriend Melissa, who often seems too good to be true. The remainder of the family --- Toby’s aunts, uncles and cousins --- make it a practice to gather there for weekly Sunday meals. Toby’s cousins, Susannah and Leon, quietly wonder what will happen to the house once their uncle passes on. It is during one such get-together that one of Susannah's children makes a grisly discovery in the hollow of a large witch elm on the property. It’s a human skull.

The police are called in short order, helmed by the friendly but quietly irritating Detective Rafferty. An entire skeleton is soon found and identified as belonging to an acquaintance of the three cousins who disappeared over a decade ago and was believed to have committed suicide. The question, of course, is how the body wound up in the tree. It is quickly determined that foul play was the cause, and Rafferty suspects that Toby was responsible. Worse, Toby's cousins appear to be nudging him toward that conclusion. Of course, Toby is still subject to those pesky gaps in his memory and comes to grudgingly doubt his own innocence. He also begins to wonder about the other mystery in the book, that being who burglarized his apartment and attacked him so brutally.

Surprises abound, and revelations trickle out, with twists and turns and slow-boiling suspense. Toby is in for a number of those surprises before the book reaches its conclusions, and not all of them are pleasant ones.

THE WITCH ELM lacks much (though by no means all) of the quiet angst that permeates French’s other books (particularly FAITHFUL PLACE, which I still reread annually), but she continues to explore relationships and how the actions of the past affect the present in unexpected and unintended ways. The pace is a bit slower than I would have liked, but Toby’s efforts at attempting to solve a murder that he may have committed and his subsequent frustrations are realistically presented. THE WITCH ELM won’t necessarily cause you to forget French’s prior work, but those who enjoy slow yet steady pacing and character development will find much to love here and should place this title on their must-read list.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 12, 2018

The Witch Elm
by Tana French

  • Publication Date: July 30, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0735224641
  • ISBN-13: 9780735224643