You’re not supposed to feel sorry for Toby Hennessy, the narrator of The Wych Elm. He describes himself as ‘basically, a lucky person’: he grew up in a prosperous, supportive family in Dublin, went to good schools and has always been well liked, not least because he’s ‘good-looking, in an easy, straightforward way’. Now 28, he lives in a flat paid for by his parents, works in PR for an art gallery and has an attractive, devoted girlfriend, Melissa.
But his ‘luck’ – a word that suggests an accidental quality not just to one’s birth but to all the circumstances of one’s upbringing – has run out. His story begins with the night he goes out to celebrate getting out of a scrape at the gallery that should probably have got him fired. He falls asleep drunk and wakes to find two burglars in his flat. When he confronts them, they assault him. Months later, he still has a limp, a droopy eyelid, a chipped tooth, a ‘thick village-idiot slur’, and difficulty following a conversation or finding the right words – he says ‘went’ when he means ‘emigrated’, ‘dazzling’ when he means ‘scintillating’. His memory is ‘well and truly fucked’. He’s not fit to return to work, or even to go to Tesco. He spends his days pacing his flat, ‘restless as a tweaker’, and although he loves getting visits from Melissa, he knows he should let her leave him. ‘The thing I couldn’t bear,’ he realises later, ‘was myself, whatever that had become.’
Tana French has gained a following over the past decade for her riveting series of police procedurals, the Dublin Murder Squad series. She has been celebrated as a stylish genre defier, in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith and Richard Price – and her books sell. French’s opening salvo was leaving one of the chief mysteries in her first novel, In the Woods, unsolved. Since then, she has demonstrated remarkable range. The classic detective series follows a single familiar hero-sleuth, but each of the six books in French’s series is narrated by a different detective. From the second book on, the narrator is someone who has appeared in an earlier book and now gets to speak for him or herself, sometimes providing a new perspective on previous events. These stories go beyond the procedural: the course of a murder investigation is shaped, and often distorted, by the narrators’ personal lives, the politics of the squad and the changing social and economic landscape of Dublin (several are directly concerned with the collapse of house prices in the city).
The Wych Elm isn’t the first time French has made the narrator a victim, but it’s the first time her narrator isn’t a cop. In the Woods is narrated by Detective Rob Ryan, who is investigating the murder of a 12-year-old girl whose body was left at the edge of Knocknaree woods. His search for the killer gets tangled up with his own past: twenty years earlier, when he was 12, his two best friends went missing in the same woods. He had been with them and was found covered in blood, with no memory of what had happened. In The Likeness, the second book in the series, Detective Cassie Maddox investigates the death of a woman who looks exactly like her. Conveniently, this woman has been living under an alias Cassie created while working undercover, and Cassie slips into the victim’s life – she becomes the victim in order to find out who she really was.
In these spooky procedurals, victimhood is an existential category, a state of being – or, more often, not-being. In The Wych Elm, though, it’s a social category, a matter of contestation and gradations. The question it constantly explores is: ‘Who counts as a victim?’ It’s not a conventional whodunnit; we are a third of the way in before murder is introduced, though it’s hinted at early on. Part of what makes the novel suspenseful is that it leaves readers wondering what, exactly, they’re anticipating, which mystery is for solving. It is talky and reflective, with long stretches in which little happens. French seems uninterested in the tight plotting and brisk pace of crime fiction; her lulls and tenuously related subplots enhance the sense of overall creepiness (this can go too far: a pan of chicken soup starts to ‘hiss and foam ominously’).
As Toby soon discovers, he isn’t simply a victim, nor is he the only victim here. When his uncle Hugo is diagnosed with brain cancer, Toby recognises that caring for him may aid his own recovery. Toby and Melissa move into Ivy House, where Toby and his cousins, Leon and Susanna, used to spend summers under Hugo’s relaxed supervision. While Melissa is at work, Toby helps Hugo, a genealogist, with his research, but this ‘gentle, crepuscular world of rustling pages and card games and hot cocoa at bedtime’ is upended when Susanna’s children discover a skull in the cavity of a wych elm. The police recover the rest of the skeleton from the tree: it’s Dominic Ganly, a classmate of Toby’s who was assumed to have killed himself the summer after they left school. Toby and Dominic were in the same crowd, but they weren’t close – ‘we weren’t friends friends,’ he tells the detectives.
As the police investigation unfolds, Toby is confronted with differences between his previously carefree experience of the world – ‘worrying had always seemed to me like a laughable waste of time and energy’ – and the struggles of many around him. This is presaged on the night of the burglary, when Toby goes to a bar with his friends Sean and Dec to unburden himself about the recent dust-up at work. The gallery was organising an exhibition of ‘representations of urban spaces by disadvantaged youths’, a show conceived by the gallery’s scruffy hipster curator, Tiernan. But then Toby discovered that the show’s best pieces, by an elusive ‘skanger’ called Gouger, had actually been created by Tiernan himself. Toby, amused, assured Tiernan he wouldn’t tell, and started hyping Gouger on social media, spinning his mystique into a ‘sub-Banksy enigma’. It was all going well until the gallery’s owner found out, fired Tiernan, and sent Toby home for a few days. Dec, who’s from a poor family, chides Toby for risking the kids’ big chance to have their art taken seriously, just ‘for a laugh’. Toby fires back: ‘They could have gone to school … They could have got jobs. The recession’s over; there’s no reason for anyone to be stuck in the muck unless they actually choose to be.’ Dec stares: ‘You haven’t got a clue, man.’
We soon find more evidence of Toby’s cluelessness. As the detectives interrogate him and his family, he starts to doubt his recollections of his own adolescence, and conversations with his cousins increase his uncertainty – and make him wonder if they had something to do with Dominic’s death. In his memory, Leon ‘was the kind of kid who got regular wedgies’, and while Susanna ‘hadn’t exactly been a reject, she and her friends had been a bunch of generally ignored Lisa Simpson types who did stuff like selling handmade candles to raise money for homelessness or Tibet or something’.
It turns out they had it much worse than that, as revealed in exchanges between Toby and his friends and in two long conversations between the three cousins, each running to about 35 pages. (‘In lesser hands, these scenes would be a trudge,’ Stephen King wrote in a review. ‘There’s a delirious intensity to them that seems to be French’s sole property.’) Dominic, cocky and boorish, tormented them both: he spread a rumour that Leon, who is gay, had Aids, and may have tried to sodomise him with a Coke bottle; and he sexually harassed Susanna, groping her at a bus stop and stalking her through the garden at Ivy House, threatening to rape her. When they told Toby about all this at the time, he brushed it off. Ten years later, he doesn’t remember any of it. To him, it sounds like something ‘out of some horror-tinged English boarding-school movie with a hard-hitting message about the dark heart of humanity’.
Through these revelations, French applies the shift in perspective used across her Dublin series to a single story. But a lot depends on Toby. The answers to both of the novel’s mysteries – who attacked Toby, and who killed Dominic – seem to depend on his ability to recall the right details. When he thinks back to that night, or back to summers at Ivy House, there are ‘holes in my mind, blind spots shimmering nastily like migraine aura’. Is this patchiness the result of brain damage, or is it just his character? By the time he’s telling this story, years later, he has almost fully recovered from the assault and he faithfully, and improbably, recalls the gaps as he experienced them. French is not interested in memory loss per se; she is interested in what it’s like to have one’s sense of self fundamentally change.
Before his injury, Toby never had to scrutinise himself. He was effortlessly charming and persuasive. ‘I never thought much about my, my personality before,’ Toby tells Hugo. ‘But when I did, I took it for granted that it was mine, you know? That it was me?’ Now, he doesn’t know who he is or how others perceive him. This uncertainty is most pronounced in his encounters with the police. When one of the detectives announces that they’ll need to search Ivy House, Toby realises that ‘just a few months ago I would have been able to talk them round: easy-peasy, no problem to me, charming smile and some perfect solution that would make everyone happy,’ whereas ‘the gibbering mess I was now couldn’t have talked round a five-year-old, even if I had been able to come up with a solution, which I couldn’t.’
The critical response to The Wych Elm has been both overwhelmingly positive and strikingly sanctimonious. Toby is seen as an embodiment of white male privilege whose suffering is not undeserved – ‘that he is suddenly disabled is not only a nuisance, it’s a violation of the lucky white guy rules,’ Buzzfeed declared – and who needs to learn some lessons. The Wych Elm was published just before Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and critics were pleased at the timing. According to New York magazine, the novel is ‘an investigation of how entitled men go their whole lives without owning their advantages, and how, when faced with a spectacular implosion of their sense of self, they stutter and stammer to protect the worldview they’ve inhabited’.
One suspects such sensibilities would be less offended by Humbert Humbert. Unlike Humbert, who is singular in both his monstrosity and his genius, Toby is a recognisable type – someone who thinks about others’ misfortune only when he’s down on his luck – and therefore an easy target. Yet one of French’s achievements in the novel, and one for which she hasn’t had due credit, is that Toby’s legitimate claim to victimhood – he was nearly killed – invites and then upends the idea that misfortunes can be easily ranked: how to judge which kinds of suffering are worse than others, which kinds of people more deserving of sympathy? ‘I thought about killing myself all the time,’ Leon tells Toby about his schooldays. ‘You think getting beaten up fucked with your head – that was one night. Imagine what years of it would do to you.’ And Susanna to Toby:
Has there ever been someone who treated you like you weren’t a person? … Someone who did whatever they wanted to you … And you were totally powerless to do anything about it. If you tried to say anything, everyone thought you were ridiculous and whiny and you should quit making such a fuss because this is normal, this is the way it’s supposed to be for someone like you.
At moments like these, The Wych Elm feels like a teenage revenge story that stretches a decade beyond school: the bullies finally get their comeuppance, and the kids who were picked on eventually prosper, having been made stronger by their suffering. And while such stories often take the form of comedies, French’s novel is closer to the teen horror films of the 1980s and 1990s, many of which centred on a moral reckoning (this was before the genre drifted into mechanised horror porn). At the same time, French undermines this villains-and-innocents fantasy. Leon and Susanna had a tough time socially, and Susanna was mistreated by a consultant when she was pregnant with her first child; but they, too, come from privileged backgrounds and enjoyed many of the same advantages Toby did – a cosy, insulating family, financial security, educational opportunities. And they, too, have things to answer for, as well as ways of avoiding doing so. Perhaps more troubling than people who are content in their privilege, in French’s account, are those who believe that some aspect of their experience cancels out rather than complicates that privilege.
So The Wych Elm offers a persuasive critique of social privilege. But the murders themselves – there’s more than one – seem like a departure from, rather than an expression of, the social reality the novel depicts. In the Dublin series, the psychology of the murders is always slightly implausible, even fairy tale-like; the interest lies in the lives of the detectives and in the investigative process, with its twists and turns. Here, though, motivation must be accounted for, since the narrator is bound up in several crimes rather than just analysing them from the outside. But the eventual explanation makes the murders appear abstruse, even silly. They are intellectual, experimental, more Dostoevsky than Highsmith.
More persuasively disturbing, and more integral to the novel, are the small misdeeds. There have been many pranks, gags and lies in Toby’s past: at school, he and Dec created fake email accounts to send flirtatious messages to their classmates; a decade later, he hypes the fabricated ‘Gouger’. Both the prankster and the bully exploit inequality, but the prankster’s violations are often less direct and less tangible. Toby’s sock-puppet deceptions – the sexy girls, the bad-boy artist – become real in a way he doesn’t anticipate and can’t control. This arrogance and obliviousness can be as sinister as overt violence.
French’s work has reinvigorated the tired debate about whether crime novels can be considered literature. She has claimed that the difference between a thriller and a literary novel is simply a function of marketing, and has expressed dismay that novels about murder are automatically classified as genre fiction. Many reviewers have been sympathetic to her position: ‘For God’s sake, Hamlet is about a murder,’ one wrote. But Hamlet is both a revenge play and a tragedy, and we know from the outset who killed the old king and why. The murder mystery, Raymond Chandler wrote, ‘has a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions’. With The Wych Elm, French has gone a step further than the pleasurable untidiness of her earlier mysteries. The murder plot is there, huge and grotesque, yet – more than ever – it is not what matters.