FROM the beginning of her career, when the ambiguous ending to her debut In the Woods (2007) had more than a few readers crying foul, Tana French has refused to stick rigidly to the crime fiction genre’s conventions.
Where most successful authors of police procedurals tend to write about a single series protagonist, for example, the bestselling and awardwinning French has passed on the baton from book to book.
Detective Stephen Moran narrated French’s previous novel, The Secret Place (2014); in The Trespasser, Conway relates the story, which begins when Conway and Moran are called to the scene of a ‘domestic’, where they discover that a young woman, Aislinn Murray, has died after a violent assault in her Stoneybatter home.
All the evidence points towards Aislinn’s new boyfriend, Rory, an apparently sensitive soul who was due to have dinner with Aislinn on the night in question.
As the only woman on the murder squad, Conway is fed up with being handed ‘domestics’ — easy solves that earn her no credit in a squad-room reeking of testosterone.
Soon, however, Conway and Moran begin to believe that Aislinn’s killer is someone with experience of cleaning up crime scenes.
Could he be a hardened criminal? Or — the nightmare scenario for investigating detectives — one of their own colleagues?
So begins the kind of tangled, complex tale that has become Tana French’s trademark, a densely plotted police procedural that leans as heavily on psychological insight as hard evidence for its eventual resolution.
Much of the psychology derives from Conway’s own hard-earned lessons in life: abandoned at an early age by her father, she’s grown up tough and embittered, an addict to the chase and nurturing a simmering rage that French flags early on, like Chekov’s shotgun hoisted above the mantelpiece: “Even when I was a kid, I knew how to hold it loaded and cocked while I got my target in range, lined up my sights and picked my moment to blow the bastard away.”
Conway makes for an unusually repellent lead character, self-flagellating and paranoiac, her internal monologue spewing irreverent cynicisms as she conducts her investigation.
At the crime scene, she can’t help passing judgement on the victim: “Her face is covered by blond hair, straightened and sprayed so ferociously that even murder hasn’t managed to mess it up. She looks like Dead Barbie.”
Indeed, so self-obsessed is Conway, particularly in terms of her paranoia about being sabotaged by her own squad, that eventually even her supportive partner Moran grows weary of it: “It’s like working with an emo teenager. Does nobody understand you, no? Are you going to slam your bedroom door and sulk?”
By this point, however, French has so skilfully characterised her leading players that the reader will sympathise with Conway, not least because she’s a woman trying to progress her career according to her own beliefs and principles in a reactionary all-male environment.
Conway, the tough survivor, realises that much of her antipathy to the victim she derides as ‘Dead Barbie’ is derived from their similar life experiences: “I was doing exactly the same thing as Aislinn: getting lost so deep inside the story in my head, I couldn’t see past its walls to the outside world.”
The Trespasser is a breath of fresh air in the crime genre, a complex tale of loss and revenge and twisted motivations that refuses to pander to the reader’s expectations.
“Steve is a romantic. He likes his stories artistic, with loads of high drama, a predictable pattern, and a pretty finish with all the loose ends tied up,” Conway tells us.
The implication, of course, is that The Trespasser will do nothing of the sort.
There is high drama, certainly, but Tana French simply can’t bring herself to deliver a pretty finish with all the loose ends tied up.
The result is a terrific crime novel, a meticulous police procedural that claws deep into the tender places where rawest emotions hide, and one that offers a more realistic take on the reality of murder investigations than the genre usually attempts.
“Justice does nothing for the dead. Nothing we do will make any difference to Aislinn,” she says.
Hodder & Stoughton, €22.50
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