For me, one of the strengths of Tana French’s crime novels are the fact that she has decided against having a serialised protagonist. Each novel brings a different perspective and while characters such as Frank Mackay might pop up in several of her books, the viewpoint is always fresh.
In The Trespasser, her sixth novel centred around the fictitious Dublin Murder Squad, the viewpoint is that of Antoinette Conway, the mixed-race, volatile detective who is fighting not just crime, but harassment from within her own department.
Partnered with the affable Stephen Moran – who took centre stage in The Secret Place – Conway feels herself to be the squad outcast and is considering giving up police work for a lucrative security job. The opening premise sounds as disappointing to the reader as it seems to Conway and Moran as they are handed what at first glance seems to be a domestic gone wrong – a quick solve that won’t help their reputation within the force.
The detectives are sent to a flat where Aislinn Murray – a young receptionist has been found dead, her head smashed against a stone fireplace. The table setting for a romantic dinner for two, found burnt in the oven suggests a lover’s tiff and Aislinn’s current boyfriend, shy book-shop owner Rory Fallon becomes the prime suspect. What raises Conway’s suspicion that this might not be the clean solve it originally looks like, is the keenness of her colleague, the self-obsessed smooth talker Detective Breslin, to close the case quickly. A little too quickly for Conway’s liking.
Pretty soon, Conway and Moran are floating some other theories for Aislinn’s death – gangland connections, a mysterious married boyfriend – plus the fact that Conway remembers Aislinn from a previous missing person case means that the slam-dunk lover’s tiff answer starts to look less and less logical.
From a procedural point of view, The Trespasser is relatively straight-forward. As the book progresses, the suspects become narrowed down to one and a lack of forensic evidence mean that for much of the book, this is Conway’s theory and not much more. As with most of French’s novels, the crime being investigated causes the detective to confront their own past and question their own instincts. This is what makes her crime novels so interesting and complex. The intricate twists are psychological rather than plot-driven – the who becomes less interesting than the why.
In Conway’s case, two issues are clouding her judgement. Firstly, her paranoia over her colleagues in Murder Squad is forcing her to question everything. It’s a well-executed trick, as the reader, like Conway, is unsure how much of her harassment is real and how much is her paranoia.
I can’t tell if this is batshit paranoia or the bleeding obvious slapping me in the dace. Two years of watching my back, watching every step and every word, in fight mode all day every day: my instincts are fried to smoking wisps.
Even Steve, her stable partner is finding her hard to work with, pointing out that Conway is on the road to self-destruction, whether she wants it or not.
Because you’re so set in going down in flames, you’d make it happen even if the entire force loved you to bits. You’ll light your own bloody self on fire if you have to. And then you can pat yourself on the back and tell yourself you knew it all along. Congratulations.
Add to this the fact that Conway and the victim Aislinn have absent fathers, a fact driving both of them in different ways. Aislinn’s obsession with her missing father is the key to her murder, while Conway blocks out her own absent father, knowing that made-up stories will never make his loss any easier to deal with. The damage wrought by their parental abandonment makes the detective and victim more alike than they could imagine. Both are damaged and volatile in their own personal ways, both creating a new persona to make up for what they have lost.
Made up stories are at the heart of The Trespasser, stories we tell ourselves, stories we create for ourselves and the stories that can help solve a crime. Aislinn recreates herself as a new character in a new life and uses the imagery of fairy tales to cope with her problems.
To her, it was like finding out that magic was real and she had it, she could turn pumpkins into carriages, she could turn princes into frogs and back again.
French cleverly equates storytelling with police work, for what is solving a crime, but finding the story that fits?
Dozens and dozens of people, they just keep coming, and every single one of their heads is crammed with stories they believe and stories they want to believe and stories someone else has made them believe
Conway and Moran need to make their story fit, not through clues but through talking, listening and asking the right questions. The Trespasser fizzes with some incredibly well written interrogation scenes – tense, sharp and suspenseful, which only serve to illuminate the idea that detective work is its own form of storytelling.
Conway is a wonderful creation, loud, brash and defensive, she is volatile and fearless, while at the same time vulnerable and questioning. If she were your friend, you wouldn’t know whether to shake her or hug her. It will be interesting to see if French continues to rotate her central character for the next book, or if the temptation to stay a little longer in Conway’s company is too much to resist. I for one, hope she allows Conway another outing.
I received a copy of The Trespasser from the publisher through Netgalley.