by Christopher O’Halloran (@BurgleInfernal)
According to the US 2020 census, 36 million Americans identify their primary ethnicity as Irish—four times the actual population of Ireland. Over 5.6 million people around the world are using the language-learning app Duolingo to learn Irish. No backyard griller is without an apron saying, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.”
People love Irish culture, which is why beloved HOWLer @Gully compiled a list of Irish literature to coincide with the celebration of St. Paddy’s Day. After a week of voting, we landed on The Wych Elm—or The Witch Elm, depending on which version you get—which is not horror per se, but did introduce many HOWLers to crime writer extraordinaire Tana French.
BEHIND THE PEN
Tana French, born in 1973 in Vermont, is now an American expat living in Ireland. She immigrated there in 1990 after studying acting at Trinity College Dublin. Dubbed the “First Lady of Irish Crime” by British newspaper The Independent, she released her first Dublin Murder Squad novel In the Woods (2007) to critical acclaim. Since then, French has expanded the series to six books, becoming an internationally beloved name among fiction readers.
In 2018, she released her first stand-alone novel, The Wych Elm. Again, it’s not horror, but as our curator @Gully pointed out, the availability of Irish Horror was lacking, so our criteria had to be adjusted.
A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY
The Wych Elm follows Toby—fortunate by his own admission, insanely privileged in the opinion of others—who finds his luck lacking one night when he is attacked in his condo. He comes away traumatised, mentally and physically, and must navigate the world in his new state. After receiving news of his ailing Uncle Hugo, he escapes to his family’s ancestral home, the Ivy House to become his caretaker.
But not long after Toby’s arrival, a grisly discovery is made inside the old wych elm in the garden. As detectives start investigating, Toby is left with his own questions about everything he thought he knew about himself and his family.
VOICES FROM WITHIN
From the get-go, users bristled at our protagonist, Toby. French has a clear agenda with this character: those that have distinct privileges are often blind to the conditions in which others live. @Fossie says, “I’m just so not into the MC… I am slightly hooked though.” To write a truly detestable character and make them interesting is hard, but French succeeds in that respect. “Her characterization is just so good,” says @Cheese Dance, a fan of the Dublin Murder Squad and outspoken advocate of the author. (“I love Tana French so hard,” she gushes, “and I want you all to love her too.”) For better or worse, we get an extremely thorough look into Toby’s thoughts and emotions. If you can’t sympathize with his position at all, you’d be hard pressed to claim ignorance about how he’s reached his conclusions. And for all the hate Toby gets, there certainly are characters worth rooting for. @Mollyec says, “I’ve only had Melissa for 160 pages but if anything happened to her I would kill everyone in this book.” Uncle Hugo, supportive of his niece and nephews is also a crowd favorite.
The characters come alive on the page, and even more so in the audiobook. If you choose to go the audio route, you’re treated to a delightful Irish brogue that’s easy to understand and musical. @QueensEnglish took us on digressions regarding the regional differences in accents which—while not necessarily giving us more information on the novel—made for a sweet lesson on the intricacies of speech in the UK. Paul Nugent does a great job narrating the text, but his job is made easier by the easy prose.
The Wych Elm is no slog. “This book is SO readable,” says @Leviathan15. But while the simple writing makes this a page-turner, some users still struggled with the narrative. @Vivek says, “Even though the prose is so smooth up until the fourth chapter that it’s so easy to read, I feel that the pacing of the story is too slow. Just a bit too many internal monologues between dialogues.” French spends a lot of—perhaps too much—time establishing character, so if you’re not patient, you might yawn at the depths she goes to in order to show you who Toby is. If you make it through the seemingly unnecessary prose in hopes that the mystery will blow your socks off, you might have to temper that expectation.
Tana French is neither Sue Grafton nor Agatha Christie. She doesn’t lean on tropes and twists like other mystery authors might. Instead, she sets up expectations while making choices that are almost surprising in their blandness. “This is a constant in Tana French’s writing,” says @Cheese Dance. “The story is about the main character’s arc and less about the crime. The crime is a means through which we view the character’s flaws and self discovery and it 100% works for me.”
It did not work for other users. Despite early praise, @shelbentina ended up rating it 2.5/5. @mollyec, @philosofik, and @vivek felt let down by the ending. @QueensEnglish and @auntiemaim were disappointed in French’s deviation from traditional mystery staples. “I read mysteries because I like the feeling when everything fits together,” says @auntiemaim, and it’s undeniable that French has different intentions.
WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
- More of a character study than a murder mystery, the biggest twists in this book are your feelings towards the narrator and how much you want to punch him in the jaw.
- Excellently written with great characterisation.
- I love Tana French so hard. This is the third book I’ve read by her and she doesn’t really do crime fiction or mysteries, per se; she does really in depth character studies with a heavy element of crime fiction and mystery. I feel like Tana’s characters are real people, and I get mad at them or feel for them the way I would with real people. Her books are so alive and I would read literally anything she wrote. In The Wych Elm, what’s so horrifying is what’s going on inside the main character’s head, and I really think she delivers on a realistic, and damning, portrayal of privilege, and just how oblivious some people can be to their position in the world, and the everyday horrors experienced by others.
- A smart and wicked slow burn. If you’re looking for believable dialogue, well-conceived characters, and gorgeous imagery, read this book. I’ll be putting Tana French on my favorite writers list after experiencing The Witch Elm.
- An interesting character study rather than a murder mystery. Tana French breathes her characters and if that’s your thing, go read it.
- French does a phenomenal job at telling a multi-layered story with so much depth. While it was fun discussing crazy theories with HOWLS, the end didn’t pack as big of a punch as expected, but the story made sense and the people felt real!
- Interesting slow burn thriller. I was almost ready to give up in the first 100 pages, but I’m glad I stuck with it. It eventually became a twisty, engaging, and unpredictable whodunit.
- Simultaneously a slow burn and a page-turner!
- It’s interesting that a character in this book has memory issues, because I don’t think I’ll remember anything about this book a year from now. Google “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?” and go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole instead!
- I really loved the first 80% or so of the book. The characterization, dialogue, and mystery were all great. But I felt like the ending was a bit of a letdown.
If you expect your mystery to follow a certain traditional trajectory, Tana French’s The Wych Elm might come across as disappointing. However, if you’re interested in fully realized, flawed characters amidst a crime investigation, you might have a new favorite in Tana French. At the very least, you’ll come away with a stronger affinity for the Emerald Isle and a craving for a Shamrock Shake.