Tana French: ‘I’m not a big believer in genre boundaries’

Five Dials interviews novelist Tana French to find out about her latest book The Wych Elm.

Author Tana French

Tana French’s novels are prized by connoisseurs of crime fiction. As the creator of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, she’s chosen a new narrator for each instalment. Like an actor keen to play each role, French has inhabited the consciousness of one detective after the next over the course of six novels: In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, Broken Harbour, The Secret Place, The Trespasser.

Her latest, The Wych Elm, is a departure of sorts. The narrator is not a detective, but rather an entitled young white man named Toby who sustains neurological damage after an assault by two burglars. Things get worse, as they usually do.

Over the course of our conversation, in a busy café in Dublin, French wanted to talk about the challenge of this new POV. We also drifted back to the past, to the books she inhaled as a younger reader, including another work that defies genre boundaries: The Secret History.

Crime has been good to French. Her books have sold millions of copies and some of the earlier novels are being made into a television series for the BBC. But French has been good to crime, too. Like Tartt, she wants more than mere murder. She examines what can unsettle any particular land, her own included.

Five Dials: When you're talking about your books, and someone says, 'Oh, they're murder mysteries,' do you ever have to say: 'Well, I'm doing a bit more here'?

Tana French: I’m aiming to do a bit more, definitely.

I’m not a big believer in genre boundaries. Crime? ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘it’s got a gripping plot, but probably two-dimensional cliché characters, not great writing, no thematic depth.’

Literature over here? ‘It’s got all the themes, it’s got the great writing, but probably the plot is pretty boring and involves a lot of people staring out their windows in some deeply symbolic urban landscape.’

I don’t see why you couldn’t aim for all of it.

If somebody’s reading this as crime, great. They can get enjoyment out of it. If they’re reading it as literature, great. And if they want to just take it on its own terms where there might be elements of both, that can work too.

One of the defining reading experiences for me was in college when I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. 

5D: When you survey the world, you must see possibilities. Donna Tartt saw possibility for murder in a classics department. Do you see similar possibilities elsewhere?

TF: It’s not murder though. It’s mystery. I like looking for the potential mystery in everything.

I remember being around six and reading a school book that included little comprehension pieces. One of them was on the Mary Celeste – the ghost ship that showed up drifting with nobody on board. ‘Breakfast was still cooking in the galley, and nothing was disturbed. Only the lifeboat was gone.’ I was enthralled. I remember lying there thinking, ‘Right, when I die, I am asking God what happened.’

So I’m looking for the potential mystery in just about everything, and it doesn’t have to be a murder mystery. How could this possibly be mysterious? Where could this take us? It’s a deep human instinct to be fascinated, and not just by mystery itself. Not just by the answer, because if that was it, we would read the first chapter of a mystery novel and skip to the last. We’re fascinated by the process, by where that process takes us, and what we discover along the way.

There’s an assumption that the process of investigating, even if you don’t solve it, has an inherent power and an inherent value. I’m looking for potential mysteries and what the process of solving them might entail.

5D: How far do you have to stray from your own life to find these mysteries?

TF: A lot of the ideas from my books have come from really banal stuff. Like Faithful Place [French’s 2010 novel in which a detective is compelled to solve the murder of his childhood sweetheart]. I was walking home and some old Georgian house was being cleared out to be renovated. There was a skip outside, and this old blue suitcase was among the crap on the skip. What if somebody left it there thinking they’d come back for it? Where could that take somebody if they started pulling on that thread? Where might it lead them?

Broken Harbour [French’s 2012 novel set in the wake of the financial crisis] was because we had mice.

5D: And also because of Ireland’s ghost estates?

TF: Those are inherently creepy. You don’t have to go looking for a mystery in them. They’re deeply frightening: what they say about us as people, what they say about our society, what we as a society are willing to buy into, what illusions we’re willing to believe out of desperation.

Those houses were charged up with some of the most frightening things underlying our society. I didn’t have to go looking there.

5D: In your previous novels, you view a crime through the POV of the police officers. In the new book, The Wych Elm, you flip the perspective.

TF: I’ve looked at criminal investigations through a detective’s eyes six times. But there are a lot of other people involved. There are witnesses, there are victims, there are suspects, there are perpetrators, and all of them have a point of view, and this whole process has to look completely different from their point of view.

When you’re looking at the investigation as a detective, all the procedural stuff is a source of power and control. It’s your way of re-imposing order on chaos. Whereas, from all those other perspectives, it has to be the exact opposite. The investigation is this thing that comes barrelling into your life, turns it upside down. You have no idea where it’s going to go. You have no control over it. You don’t know what the detectives are doing or why. Are you a witness? Are you a suspect? Who are you within this pattern?

I thought I should give a voice to those other perspectives where you don’t know and you’re borne along by this process and you have to struggle and fight to find any kind of agency.

At various points in the book, Toby, the lead character, is all of those. He’s victim, he’s witness, he’s suspect, he’s perpetrator, and he shifts from all those perspectives. I definitely wanted to see it from the opposite angle.


It weakens the book if your narrator is somebody to whom things just keep happening, and he just keeps receiving, rather than being a force within the story itself.


5D: The allure for the reader is that the detective is in charge. The detective detects. He or she has power. But when you flip the perspective, you feel closer to someone like Toby, because it’s happening to him as it could happen to you, if things ever went bad.

TF: And he struggles with it. I don’t want him to be just a passive character within this story. It weakens the book if your narrator is somebody to whom things just keep happening, and he just keeps receiving, rather than being a force within the story itself.

5D: It’s also an interesting book to be reading right now. Here’s a middle-class white guy, with a definite sense of entitlement. It’s pointed out many times in the book that Toby is not like others. Was that conscious?

TF: That’s what started the book. I was thinking about luck. I was thinking about the relationship between luck and empathy, and how too much luck can stunt empathy. If you’ve been too lucky in one area, it’s easy to not be aware that other people might be experiencing a very different reality.

What about somebody who’s been lucky in every way? He has got the right side of the coin flip all the way along. He is white, he is male, he is straight. He’s from an affluent family. He’s mentally and physically healthy.

5D: You get the feeling he can get away with things.

TF: He’s good-looking. He’s charming. He’s had a stable childhood, a family who loves him. The world is basically set up to be Toby-friendly. It was very important to me to make him a good guy. He’s not nasty. There is no malice in him. He’s the guy who’s just pulled every single ace along the way.

5D: And you didn’t want a woman to play that role, say a white woman who’s everything but male?

TF: If you’re not playing the game on the easiest difficulty setting in every way, then you are going to be more aware that other people might have other difficulty settings.

Perhaps you’re a woman who has, on a pretty much daily basis, had your ideas dismissed in a meeting or laughed at. If you get passionate about something you’re called hysterical or aggressive. You've been catcalled. You’ve been grabbed on buses, just all the daily stuff.

You’re aware that the good, sound guys who would never do this kind of thing are completely oblivious to the fact that this is part of your daily experience.

If you’re like that, you might think: ‘Hang on a second. I’m probably oblivious in the same way to the experience of others. Hang on a second, I can kiss my boyfriend in public, but my gay guy friends can’t do the same thing.’ Or, ‘Hang on a second, maybe I have a different experience of the police or trying to rent a flat than a black friend does.’ If you are daily being made aware of the fact that there are different difficulty settings, you’re more likely to be aware of that as it applies to other people. So he had to be male. And he had to be white and he had to be straight and he had to be middle class. If he wasn’t playing the game on the easiest setting, it would make him much more likely to be aware of other people’s realities.

5D: When you choose to move from the perspective of a detective to the perspective of a character like Toby, are there new limits and new freedoms?

TF: It was a little bit scary, because in some ways it was much more like writing In The Woods. In all of the ones in between, I had already established the world of the Murder Squad. Although the other books are pretty much stand-alones, they have a certain amount of continuity. You know who the pathologist is, what size the squad is, how it works, the hierarchy. I couldn’t break that in the other books, which is good. It means I’ve got certain shortcuts established already. But it also means I can’t suddenly transform the entire Murder Squad into something different. Whereas in this novel, there are none of those parameters.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing the same book over. I don’t want to fall into that trap ever.

5D: A lot of people do. I guess they have their reasons.

TF: I’ll read those. I love reading those, the same book over and over, but I don’t actually want to write them.

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5D: You’ve mentioned your love for books that have broken the form. Have other books acted as a template?

TF: The Talented Mr Ripley. You only realize partway through, Oh my God, I’m rooting for the murderer, and not even a ‘good murderer’, whatever that is. Not somebody who killed a person who was threatening his family – no, he killed somebody because he fancied his life. But you rooted for him. Patricia Highsmith was all kinds of genre buster.

There are writers, including many of the greats, who approach the genre as an end point, as a finished thing. Let’s polish this sculpture to its absolute highest shine. Let’s perfect this. People like Agatha Christie. But then you also have the opportunity to use genre as a starting point rather than an end point. So it’s not like, ‘Let me get these conventions as brilliant as they can be.’ It’s, 'If I tie them in a knot and build them into something else'?’

I like conventions as a starting point. ‘What else could I do with it?’ Part of it may be timing. I felt that I came to the genre at a point where it had been polished to the highest shine. Look at Kate Atkinson and Gillian Flynn – Gillian Flynn and I were very much around the same time. We’re going, ‘All right. So what next? What else can we do? What else is there room for?’ There will always be room.


5D: Where do you think the form will go from here?

TF: I heard somewhere that more and more crime books are being set retro, set a few decades in the past, because of those damn mobile phones. So much of the investigation process is technological. There's less of the human interaction that makes us fascinated with crime books. That’s being eroded away. You can track somebody. You don’t have to interview five people to find out where so-and-so was on the night of the 15th. You just track his phone.

It erodes the sense of mystery in everything, not just in the specific mystery. A decade or two ago, if you want to know where Joe was on the night of the 15th, and you talk to his ex-girlfriend, and she says he wasn’t with her, is she lying because she wants to get him into trouble? Joe says he went past her house and she definitely saw him. Who’s lying? Whereas now: well, Joe’s phone says he wasn’t there.

There isn’t that sense of reality being slightly flexible, of reality having its own little nooks that you might never be able to clarify. It’s eroding our relationship with mystery.

I worry about whether our relationship with mystery is going to be truncated. We’re going to get more and more impatient with the idea that something might not have an immediate solution. And become more and more dismissive. I notice people are more dismissive of things that don’t have an easy answer. There seems to be a general movement towards being less and less willing to put time and thought into something that may not be capable of solution.

I wonder if there’s going to be a polarization: people who really have no patience for anything that isn’t on Google, versus people who crave that mystery.

5D: Which side will you be on?

TF: I like mystery.

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