so i have been on a Tana French binge this month, re-reading all her Dublin Murder mystery series. the great advantage to this is that reality becomes a kind of mirage–what you’re really moving through each day is the book, not real life. sometimes this is a great advantage.

each of French’s books gives the reader something so rare as to be nearly unique in a mystery series: absolutely unforgettable, real, whole, breathing, humanly fucked up characters who are all trying desperately to Do the Right Thing, and only partially succeeding. the detectives are always more interesting than the murderers, and possibly more fragile. plus you get an absolutely fabulous mystery, and a ghost character.

the ghost characters are what really set French’s books apart, ’cause they’re not just stupid ghosts–they’re the circumstances that surround that make the whole thing feel inevitable. in In the Woods, it’s about how early trauma can unstring us; in The Likeness, it’s about how we can be garrotted by our own dreams; in Faithful Place, it’s the brutal damage that familial abuse can wreak; and in Broken Harbor, it’s about how economics can kill (and we’re not talking about simple greed, here).

In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad, #1)In the Woods by Tana French

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

you’re much better off reading the interview with French on this book–it has the virtue of being way more interesting than anything i can say.

The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad, #2)The Likeness by Tana French

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

the first time i read this book, i had a very hard time buying into the plot premise: that our detective, Cassie Maddox, could a) pass in a household of close-knit friends as the murder victim, and b) that she could be so entranced, so glamoured, by their communal life that she’d wobble in her goal of identifying the killer. the second time around, though, i find i believe it. the dream that she walks into is so vivid and so sustaining that i can see it seducing a whole lot of people, myself included as a reader.

Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #3)Faithful Place by Tana French

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Faithful Place is my favorite of French’s books. in this one we get the very weird, driven, and funny undercover Detective Francis Mackey, along with all his immensely fucked-up family and a long-dead true love. what i love best about this book is its depiction of the slow-rolling tsunami of devastation that is domestic violence.

Broken Harbor (Dublin Murder Squad, #4)Broken Harbor by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

don’t plan on doing anything (like sleeping, or going to work) in the middle of this book. it won’t let you.

tana french is master at the psychological puzzle, and this book is a very nuanced example of that. the central themes of this book echo along all its passages, and i suspect will very much reward a second read after you’ve done the hell-bent whodunit read.

the book keeps itself to very few characters, on the whole: our detective, the damaged but horribly perspicacious Mick Kennedy; his newbie partner Richie; the victims and their immediate family; and Kennedy’s sister, who plays a small but pivotal role. the story is told from Kennedy’s view, and we know only what he knows and only when he knows it. this tight focus permits French to let us in on every thought the man has during the investigation, and his every perception. we get his worldview and his blind spots all of a piece.

i’ve never been to Ireland, don’t know the culture. i do know its recent economic history has been a horrorshow of the failings of capitalism, and this recent history makes for almost a character in its own right–no single human can have had the devastating effects that it has had. economics cuts a swath through this tale with a scythe, and no one gets away unpunished.

the book does have flaws, however, one of which got almost irritating. Kennedy and Richie spend a lot of time speculating on who might have done it, and why, all without any or much physical evidence to back up their conclusions. i am sure that real detectives do speculate, but i have a hard time believing that the good ones do it quite so much on the basis of no evidence–i’m guessing they’d say, “eh, I dunno, we need to find out X first” and then spend some time finding out X. in places these gentlemens’ flights of fancy were just way further out than i think a real detective might go, and it begins then to smell like an author throwing out red herrings.

it’s not as moving, i think, as Faithful Place was, nor as rich as that book felt. but still entirely worth the read. i am looking forward to re-reading it in a year or so, when i can revel more thoroughly in French’s portrait of Kennedy.

postscript: yep, it got even better the second time around. Kennedy is a masterpiece of a character and the long confessional scene at the end was just as hair-raising.