My favourite play of all time is Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, for a couple of reasons. Not only is it a deft combination of laugh out loud funny and gut-punch devastating, but it is only the first part of a trilogy of plays, all set in the same town, all standalone stories and yet all stories that enrich each other if you read/watch them in sequence, due to the new perspective each instalment gives you on characters and events you thought you had a handle on. The Leenane Trilogy is a singular storytelling experience because each play is satisfying by itself and yet together they create a powerful portrait of a small-town Ireland in despair, a sense of a lived in world that led me, when I was in Ireland two years ago, to go out of my way to visit the real town of Leenane, just to feel like I was stepping into the world of some of my favourite ever stories.
I’d never known anything like those plays and would recommend them heartily to anyone who would listen. Most of the time I got half-hearted nods or a vague ‘guess I’ll check them out’. One time, however, the response was ‘oh, that sounds a lot like the Dublin Murder Squad books by Tana French’.
I’m not somebody who rushes out to seek stories similar to ones I’ve previously enjoyed, and while I made vague noises of my own about how I might check out that series, I remembered it and when I came across the first book, In The Woods in a second hand bookstore earlier this year, I figured I might as well give it a try.
What followed was revelatory. What is about to follow is my spoiler-free post-mortem of the whole series, why I loved it, and why you should read it. But if you want the short version, I finally found something I could be as effusive about as the Leenane Trilogy. It turned out all I needed was another Irish series of standalone stories set in the same universe with each instalment giving new context to the ones that preceded it. Who’d have thought?
In The Woods
It took me a little while to get into In The Woods. The prologue read as a little too heady and flowery, in a way that I found hard to engage with. Still, I pushed on, as the hook was more than enough. The plot is simple; twenty-two years ago, three kids went to play in the woods outside of Dublin. Only one came back, covered in blood with no memory of what happened to his friends. In the present day that boy, Rob Ryan, has become a detective in the Dublin Murder Squad. He’s changed his name and put his past behind him. Then a body is found on the same spot where his friends went missing and he and his partner Cassie Maddox are assigned the case.
In The Woods doesn’t seize you immediately. It takes its time setting up Rob and Cassie, letting us get to know and like them, letting us get invested in their bond. Even the case starts slowly. There’s the persistent prickle of unease in Rob’s first-person narration, but he insists that there’s probably no link to his past, and that what happened all those years ago hasn’t really affected him. It has.
Each book in the series uses the connection between the detective and the case as a way to explore a particular theme, and for Rob and In The Woods it’s trauma. As the book goes on, what really pulls you in is Rob’s plight; his deep flaws and tragic inability to confront the thing that looms so large in his past. The resolution to the case, in the end, becomes almost incidental as we watch each new discovery tug at the threads of Rob’s already fraying psyche, forcing a man who is singularly unable to think about his past into a situation where he can do nothing else. What the ensuing fallout does to him, and by extension Cassie, led to late night reading sessions after which I would lie in bed, staring at the roof as my mind turned over what I had just read.
Part of it is French’s prose. What initially risked putting me off soon become an indelible part of one of the most complete reading experiences I’d had in years. There are moments where her descriptions put you in the mindset of somebody watching a horror movie; you’re on the edge of your seat, waiting for the jump, so drawn in by the way that she seems to paint with words. To call it poetic is almost to cheapen what she achieves.
In The Woods is a murder mystery. But it’s also a character study and a literary novel of stunning craft. I finished it with the certainty that this was the best book I’d read in years. What I was less certain about was just how the hell you could follow it up.
I didn’t dive into The Likeness immediately. When I refer to In The Woods as a complete experience, I mean it’s the kind of book that feels finished at the end, satisfying on just about every level. When I mentioned to a friend who had also read it that there was a second, he couldn’t believe it. It’s nice to know there’s more, but you’re not exactly tripping over yourself to find out what happens, especially as each book is basically a standalone about a different character.
The Likeness is probably the closest thing to a direct sequel in the whole series. While it contains only oblique references to the events of In The Woods, they are reasonably important and I do recommend reading them in order (that goes for the whole series – we’ll get to why).
The Likeness follows Cassie Maddox, a few months after the events of In The Woods. Following what happened at the end of that book she has transferred out of murder, but gets called back when a body is found – a body that not only looks identical to Cassie, but was carrying an ID that she previously used as an undercover cop. Cassie’s former boss, Frank Mackey, floats the idea that Cassie can infiltrate the dead girl’s life, pretending to be her and from the inside working out who killed her. Cassie is reluctant, but ultimately agrees and soon finds the lines blurring between herself and her deceased doppelganger in ways that become increasingly dangerous.
A lot of people can’t get into In The Woods because they find the relatively dour and at times unpleasant Rob Ryan a hard protagonist to connect to. Cassie Maddox doesn’t have that problem; she’s comfortably the most likable of all French’s detectives; intelligent, empathetic and very funny. Cassie, however, is dealing with trauma of her own, linked to the death of her parents and a life in which she’s never really belonged anywhere. What’s fascinating about The Likeness is how it juxtaposes Cassie with the dead girl she’s impersonating, somebody who seemingly had found the very things Cassie has always been missing and in death left Cassie a twisted opportunity for the same. Again, French challenges her detective with a case that cuts to the core of who they are. Over the course of the book, Cassie makes mistakes that we completely understand even as we yell at the pages; the real beauty of this story is how much we feel for Cassie and how, at times, we want her to forget the case and embrace this new life that she’s faking her way through.
Of course, one of the people in said new life killed the previous inhabitant of it.
The Likeness takes quite a while to get going, and even when it does it moves along at a leisurely stroll rather than a gallop. All told this isn’t the worst thing; in order for us to understand Cassie’s growing connection to the world she’s found herself in we need to spend time there and, like Cassie, we need to experience stretches where the underlying tension slips to the back of our minds. French manages this masterfully, and by the end is vindicated of any accusations of dragging her feet by a final stretch that is as propulsive and pulse-pounding as any book you’d care to name. I started The Likeness thinking it wasn’t as good as In The Woods. I finished it convinced it was better.
Part of this is due to the prose, which I mentioned above but in The Likeness explodes into vivid life that the rest of the series never quite matches. Some of the descriptions are literally breath taking, leading you to put the book down for a moment to process the singular beauty of what you just read. One of French’s most impressive skills is her ability to tweak her voice for each new protagonist, and Cassie Maddox gets the most elegiac and lyrical. The Likeness has a certain dreamlike otherworldliness that is a world away from the creeping darkness of In The Woods or really, any other crime novel I’ve read.
A lot of people recommend starting the series with Faithful Place. I don’t quite agree; I think the books feel richest read in order, but I can understand the argument. Where In The Woods and The Likeness both take their time, Faithful Place moves at a relentless pace that had me finishing it in three days.
The protagonist this time is Cassie’s former boss from Undercover, Frank Mackey, who might be French’s most interesting character across the board. An irreverent, rule breaking tough guy, Frank nonetheless has his own demons; namely a horrible, abusive adolescence in a rough part of Dublin that he sought to escape with his sweetheart Rosie two decades previously. When she never turned up for their planned rendezvous, Frank left alone, assuming she had gone without him. Fast forward to the present day, when Frank’s family contact him for the first time in twenty years to tell him Rosie’s suitcase has been found. And shortly thereafter, her body.
Faithful Place is a different beast from the previous two books. The relative lack of lyrical prose is understandable; Frank is not the type to go in for that kind of thing. Nor does this case require time or careful set up. Frank wants to resolve it and get out before he’s dragged back into the trap he sees his family as. What he slowly realises is that there’s no escape, that the claws are buried too deep and the more he struggles the more he’s going to get torn apart.
French’s sense of location and character is arguably at its strongest here. The sometimes hilarious Irish dialogue of Frank’s family bring them to colourful life; they’re stereotypical but with very real darkness hidden below the familiar veneer. Taking place almost entirely around the titular street, Faithful Place is maybe the most contained book in the series, claustrophobic and laser focused. The turns come fast and some of them are genuinely shocking.
Frank Mackey is fascinating company. Beneath his roguish charm he’s dangerous and unscrupulous, willing to do just about anything to achieve his goals. Some scenes are genuinely uncomfortable to read, leading us to wonder whether we’re right to be on his side. It’s all intentional of course; Frank’s deep fear is that he has inherited the violence of his family and that the twenty years he’s spent running were ultimately a pointless distraction from the person he can’t help being. There’s a pleasing ambiguity when it comes to answering the question of who Frank really is, ambiguity that French cleverly reintroduces two books later (we’ll get to that).
Where Faithful Place falls just slightly short (and in a book as riveting and well rounded as this to even mention it feels like a nitpick) is in the conclusion. None of these books boast especially shocking reveals of who the killer is and nor should they – they’re more character studies than whodunnits – but Faithful Place lands in a fairly obvious place and the ending feels uncharacteristically uncertain for French, like she wasn’t quite sure where to leave Frank. Both Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox ended up in places that felt fitting. Frank is left more in a vague limbo that doesn’t boast the same power as the other books.
But if I was going to get somebody into this series and wasn’t sure they’d have the patience for the first two, I’d be more than comfortable to recommend Faithful Place. Very few books hook me to the degree that this one did.
Broken Harbour is a bit of an outlier in the series. While they all function as standalones, each book has a fairly close relationship with at least one other volume – In The Woods and The Likeness create a solid little double bill, while The Secret Place is in many ways a sequel to Faithful Place and The Trespasser to The Secret Place. Broken Harbour, however, is different.
The protagonist this time around is Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, introduced in Faithful Place as Frank’s rival. In the previous book he came off as a bit of a pompous jerk and that doesn’t really change now that he’s the protagonist. Scorcher has an elevated (not entirely unearned) opinion of himself and where Frank didn’t care about the rules, Scorcher follows them to the letter.
The case doesn’t have the same immediate hook of the previous books either. In a largely abandoned housing development, a seemingly perfect young family have been attacked; the father and two kids are dead, the mother in a coma. Scorcher does have a connection to the location in question, but it affects the present in a thematic sense rather than a plot one. His main involvement here is that he just happens to be the detective assigned the case.
Broken Harbour is a book I admire more than I like. While French inhabits Scorcher to the degree that he feels easily as real and alive as her other characters, she has admitted in interviews to finding him harder to connect to and I think it does show. I love that she went for a protagonist like this, but you neither fall in love with him the way you do Cassie or find him as compelling as Frank. It doesn’t help that the case is less involving and it takes a while to really get drawn in; I would argue, until roughly the final act of the story.
That said, where Broken Harbour hits hard is in its themes. Scorcher is a man who rigidly believes – has to believe – that if you follow the rules you’ll be okay, that if something goes wrong it’s because you’ve messed up somewhere. As he delves into a case that makes less and less sense the further he goes, he finds himself confronted by a crime that has no rhyme or reason, in which madness and murder still appeared despite the victims doing everything right. And as the rough edges of the case become evident, the man who follows every rule to the letter finds himself in a situation where the only way to get a solve might be to break them.
The thing about the series being arguably one of character studies is that eventually you’ll find a character you don’t like that much. But while I didn’t feel overly connected to Scorcher, the final moments of his story were affecting enough that I found myself thinking about him the most after turning the final page. Just about every Tana French protagonist departs on a slightly ambiguous note as far as their future is concerned, but there were none I wanted to see the next chapter for more than Scorcher. Unfortunately, we don’t hear from him again.
The Secret Place
Finding Broken Harbour a bit of a slog meant that I was really looking forward to The Secret Place, not least because I knew that it featured the return of Frank Mackey. Not, mind you, as a protagonist; the lead this time is Stephen Moran, another Faithful Place alumnus who was last seen being used as a pawn in the rivalry between Frank and Scorcher. Stephen is contacted by Frank’s now teenage daughter Holly, whose private school became the subject of scandal a year previously when a boy was found dead on the grounds. Holly has discovered a card left on a school noticeboard with a picture of the boy and the caption ‘I know who killed him.’
The Secret Place is probably the biggest break in formula for the series. Stephen Moran has no real connection to the crime, either textually or subtextually. There’s some vague stuff about the class envy he feels at the sight of the stunning, prestigious school that serves as the primary setting for the book, but he’s not confronting any long-buried demons here. In general, Moran is a likable character but nowhere near as complex or interesting as the rest. Tellingly, this is the first book that deviates from a strict first-person narrative, with every second chapter being a flashback to the events that led up to the murder.
This largely works, with the book alternating between the day-long investigation of Moran and the acerbic Antionette Conway into the school and the fraught network of political relationships between teenage girls that ultimately led to a murder. French’s characterisation, as always, is impeccable; the students end up engaging characters and there’s a lot in their depictions that rings true about friendship and how simultaneously empowering and endangering it can be when you’re growing up and not sure of who you are. Friendship is the central theme of this book; the way it grows, fractures and weathers the worst storms, evident also in the growing bond between Conway and Moran, a bond that starts in a place of mutual distrust and becomes something with its own unique power.
The Secret Place marks a return to some of the lyricism of In The Woods and The Likeness, but somehow it doesn’t work as well here, coming off occasionally as overblown and distracting. At times The Secret Place feels like it’s biting off more than it can chew and for that reason doesn’t quite match the cohesiveness of some of the other instalments. There’s also a mild supernatural element that, while I get French’s reasoning for it, to me feels a little distracting and out of place.
All of that said, The Secret Place ultimately packs a pretty serious punch, especially when it comes to the reintroduction of Frank Mackey in the story’s final act. It’s here that some of French’s true genius becomes apparent; we’ve met Frank as an ally to Cassie in The Likeness, as the compromised hero of his own story in Faithful Place, and now, without ever feeling like a different character to the one we’ve already met, he becomes the antagonist, the worst possible person to get involved at the crucial juncture of Moran and Conway’s case. A new perspective changes so much, and nowhere is that more beautifully depicted than in the case of Frank, whose inherent danger here becomes difficult to ignore or accept when it actively threatens our protagonists. It’s a brilliant shift that, to me, illustrates exactly why these books need to be read in order, even if they all seem on the surface to be their own thing.
At face value, The Trespasser probably seems like the least enticing plot of the bunch. Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran, partners since the events of The Secret Place, are called to a crime scene that looks in every way to be a straightforward domestic dispute, complete with a jumpy boyfriend and a weak alibi. Regularly the subject of dull assignments, Conway (the protagonist this time) notices nothing interesting in the case apart from the vague sense that she’s seen the victim before.
Naturally, all is not as it seems.
The Trespasser rivals Faithful Place as my favourite of the series, but I doubt that would be the case had I read it in isolation. As the unofficial finale, it’s the first to really explore the murder squad itself, and without getting into spoilers the case involves the secrets, hopes and failures of certain detectives in ways both surprising and heart-wrenching. Despite its humble appearance, the case is also the most fleshed out and fascinating of the series, one that gets deeper, more complicated and more tragic the further along the book goes. Like in Broken Harbour the link between case and protagonist is more thematic than anything else, but it really lands this time, as Conway’s initial disdain for the victim soon gives way to a sort of kinship.
Conway is probably the most well-rounded protagonist of the whole series, and that’s really saying something. Tough, unsentimental but fundamentally wounded in ways she refuses to admit, she’s highly likeable and deeply flawed. Her relationship with Stephen Moran continues to grow and develop in directions that are both triumphant and moving, and furthermore her relationship with the squad at large, which seems initially to be headed in one direction, takes some welcome turns and shades of complexity. Conway’s journey in this book is probably the most satisfying since Cassie Maddox; in fact, the book across the board is arguably the most roundly satisfying of the series and while I went into it not wanting to view it as an ending it feels like exactly the right kind of send off for this loosely linked series. There’s a pleasing circularity to where The Trespasser leaves us, coming back to ideas and plot points that evoke In The Woods without ever even mentioning the events of that book. I referred to In The Woods as ‘complete’ and it’s a descriptor I would just as comfortably hand to The Trespasser, only more so. Everything about it feels earned and nothing lingers in a way that leaves you unsatisfied. It’s a masterclass of detective fiction.
But then, that descriptor applies comfortably to the whole series. I’ve long had a theory that whodunnits tend to be especially well thought out stories as writing a good one effectively requires giving every potential suspect a valid reason to be the killer and in the process leading to fairly developed characters across the board, but what Tana French has achieved in these books is elevating the genre in ways I found inspiring. As somebody who loves whodunnits, I feel like the term is wrong for what this series is. I feel like what it is in the end is a series of masterfully written novels that are each strong works in their own right but together become something greater. It’s a storytelling achievement that I find myself in awe of, and more than that, one I’ve learnt so much from.
It’s not often that you discover a series that makes you grateful it exists. Tana French has more than achieved that. Now go read them for yourselves.
Writing words about writing words.