The Root of All Evil

The Witch Elm: A Novel BY Tana French. Viking. Hardcover, 528 pages. $28.

The cover of The Witch Elm: A Novel

Five years ago, I edited an anthology of crime stories by women originally published between the early 1940s and the late 1970s. Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives carried the subtitle Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense for a specific reason: “Domestic suspense,” as I defined it—though I did not originate the term—referred to a category of crime fiction that did not rest easily within the largely male, American, hard-boiled school created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, or in the largely female, British “Golden Age” of detective fiction best represented by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Stories of domestic suspense—written by once successful, later forgotten women authors like Dorothy B. Hughes, Charlotte Armstrong, and Margaret Millar—charted a third path. These works of fiction were less interested in detective work and crime-solving and more attuned to the instability and fear that lurked within homes, families, and the self. Boundaries blurred. Wrongs and resentments metastasized inside the minds of the characters, and weren’t necessarily righted. In these books, mounting worries about childcare, say, or a cheating spouse could escalate until erupting into scenes of terror, confrontation, and sometimes revenge.

The anxieties explored in classic works of domestic suspense—particularly anxieties around gender roles—grew more pronounced in the years between the Second World War and the dawn of second-wave feminism. With its stories of intimate relationships gone horribly awry, domestic suspense was rooted in the midcentury, when most American women could not obtain a credit card or have equal standing with men in the workplace. By the 1970s, with social changes that gave women more agency, this subgenre went into decline, while private-detective novels by women—most notably Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky—emerged as a feminist response. The female PIs of these books moved away from home and took action by reclaiming the detective novel for themselves.

Fabrice Hyber, Racine première (First Root), 2018, oil, charcoal, pastel, and epoxy resin on canvas, 59 1⁄8 × 78 3⁄4".
Fabrice Hyber, Racine première (First Root), 2018, oil, charcoal, pastel, and epoxy resin on canvas, 59 1⁄8 × 78 3⁄4".

Decline, however, did not mean domestic suspense ceased to exist. Rather, like all durable subgenres, it morphed with the times. Mary Higgins Clark, beginning with Where Are the Children? (1975), fused that earlier mode of storytelling with the more gothic approaches of Mary Roberts Rinehart and Daphne du Maurier. Later works by Ruth Rendell, Laura Lippman, and Megan Abbott addressed more contemporary issues of class and social anxiety in their exploration of female behavior. And then came Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster 2012 novel, with its ruthless examination and evisceration of modern marriage, updating the obsessions and compulsions depicted by earlier generations. Its incisive portrayals of the lengths to which its twin protagonists go to betray each other, complete with a now-infamous mid-novel perspective twist, wowed readers and still inspire heated discussion.

Gone Girl spawned a mini-boom of novels featuring toxic marriages, unreliable narrators, and rug-pulling narrative turns under all sorts of category names (my least favorite is “grip-lit”). As is common with genre-redefining books, too many of the most successful

knockoffs, like The Woman in the Window or The Couple Next Door, suffered in comparison: They featured weak women with dishwater personalities masquerading as “unreliable” narrators, settings so lacking in specificity the novels could take place in outer space, and plot twists easily foreseen within the first third of the book.

Many of these Gone Girl followers forgot what makes that book stand out: Flynn articulated, with hyperspecificity on the sentence level, the anxiety of life immediately following the 2008 economic crash, the high melodrama of a very bad marriage, and the crushing expectations of others, all while managing to provide the most wicked sort of entertainment. Contemporary suspense novels that do succeed are equally trenchant, establishing a deeper psychological dimension. Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister hooks readers with its reality-television setting, Araminta Hall’s Our Kind of Cruelty features an intriguingly unreliable narrator, and Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew and Rosalie Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly? portray terror and espionage of an international variety. But what distinguishes them is their depiction of a more psychological force—rage, particularly rage expressed by and against women.

One of the best writers of psychological suspense has enjoyed spectacular critical and commercial success for more than a decade, but, until now, she has been using a different container. Tana French is known for writing detective fiction that behaves in ways detective fiction hasn’t customarily made room for. Her Murder Squad, the rotating cast of Dublin detectives featured in her first six novels, investigate and interrogate with the practiced aplomb of cops in the best American and British police procedurals. The detective novelist Michael Connelly, author of the best-selling Harry Bosch series, once said that a case works on a detective as much as a detective works on a case. But French’s characters are the cases—their inner lives matter just as much as those of the victims of the crimes they are tasked with solving.

We see them working, but also wrestling with the toll the work exacts upon them. Frank Mackey, the lead detective in French’s third novel (and my own favorite), Faithful Place, grapples with the split identity that comes with being an undercover cop: “Here’s the real risk in Undercover, in the field and out: you create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you’re in control. It’s easy to slide into believing you’re the hypnotist here, the mirage master, the smart cookie who knows what’s real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you’re still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience. No matter how good you are, this world is always going to be better at this game.”

French reinvigorated the police procedural, but something lacked in her last two Murder Squad outings, The Secret Place and The Trespasser. Interrogation scenes, always French’s forte, went on several beats too long. The demands of plot seemed to bore her. The detectives, Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway, appeared to have hollowed out. French could still be brilliant in flashes, and eminently quotable, but the parts could not overcome sums that did not quite add up.

A fresh spark erupts in French’s latest novel, The Witch Elm. Rather than the police procedural—though she nods to it when a detective appears on the scene to investigate and interrogate a small group of people about a body found in the trunk of an elm tree—French turns her narrative attention to psychological suspense. The novel pivots on the discovery of the corpse, but the focus is on a man in deep conflict with his own sense of entitlement.

Toby Hennessy, like so many white men, didn’t always know there was a conflict. He’s lived his life according to the whims of charm and luck, a capriciousness that’s allowed him to skate away from trouble, land in the arms of an adoring, beautiful girlfriend named Melissa, and even survive a brutal beating at the hands of burglars with only some of his faculties damaged. “It’s taken me this long to start thinking about what luck can be, how smoothly and deliciously deceptive, how relentlessly twisted and knotted in on its own hidden places, and how lethal,” Toby declares early on.

French has long displayed a gift for teasing out secrets from hidden places. But The Witch Elm, sloughing off detective fiction, goes for something more elemental: the hidden places within the mind, what memory erases, and what is forgotten, by design or by accident. Toby’s own memory erasures are triggered at his uncle Hugo’s house, to which he and Melissa relocate to care for this cancer-ridden relative. Their interactions appear placid on the surface, but Toby knows better: “The three of us maneuvered carefully around one another, as though there was something hidden somewhere in the house (landmine, suicide vest) that at the wrong footfall might blow us all to smithereens.”

The body in the tree is, for Toby, a metaphorical IED. Toby realizes he went to school with the victim, and that the victim was a most unlikable fellow. From there he must question everything: the motives of other family members, the stability of his relationship, even his surroundings. Dread relentlessly encroaches upon the idyll.

Where French’s earlier novels are preoccupied with inverting classic forms, The Witch Elm is more interested in its protagonist’s interior state, and shows how psychological suspense functions as an inversion of the detective novel. There is tension and release and even some catharsis, but what ultimately remains, for Toby and for the reader, is a sense of frustration. He hopes, after learning the truth about what happened to the body in the tree, for “some crucial secret that would illuminate this whole story so that all its rotten shadows blazed to life with a great transforming meaning, but I couldn’t for the life of me think what that might be.”

If Gone Girl portrayed the extremes of marital dysfunction, The Witch Elm shows us what happens when a man confronts the crimes hidden within himself. By the end of the book, the shell of privilege and luck, the “keystone that cohered my bones,” as Toby realizes, is shattered forever. Once that happens, what is left? Recovery, perhaps, but also something more mysterious, the secret place where suspense meets suspended animation. Toby’s relentless self-examination, no matter the cost, is deeply relevant to our moment. And Tana French, having tailored psychological suspense to her own voice, demonstrates anew that the solution never fits so neatly into the crime-solving order that detective novels demand.

Sarah Weinman is the author of The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World (Ecco, 2018).