Tana French, best known for her Dublin Murder Squad series, has written a stand-alone novel The Wych Elm, a richly atmospheric and very spooky suspense tale placed in the midst of a family drama.
Toby Hennessy, considers himself lucky– without too much effort he has achieved whatever he wanted to. A handsome and charming young man, he has a close-knit family, an enviable PR job with an art gallery, a loving girlfriend and loyal buddies. Then, in the matter of one evening, everything goes wrong.
When he interrupts a robbery in his apartment, he is viciously beaten. His injuries leave him physically disfigured and mentally disturbed with memory gaps. His cousins Susanna and Leon, who have been more like siblings to him, suggest he spend time at the family home, The Ivy House, where the three spent many a delightful summer under the benevolent eye of their bachelor uncle, Hugo.
Hugo is suffering from a terminal illness and needs someone to keep an eye on him, and Toby, obviously needs to recover from his trauma. He moves there with Melissa and seems to be getting better, when life throws him another curveball. A skull is found in the trunk of the Wych Elm in their garden, The cops come by, cut the tree and dig up the garden. The skull happens to belong to a classmate of Toby’s, and suddenly, he is suspected of murder.
The cops—in particularly Inspector Rafferty– dig their teeth into the case with a cold efficiency that seems almost brutal towards Hugo and Toby, both not in a fit state to bear the constant intrusion into their idyllic home and the disturbance of their already fragile minds.
French keeps adding layers to the story of the dead boy, and every time a new piece of information is unearthed, the reader’s point of view is manipulated this way and that. If murder had been committed all those years ago, then who among the Hennessey kids did it—they all had motive, as it turns out.
It is a slow-burning novel with does seem to drag a bit, and go round in circles; it is not as straightforward as a whodunit or police procedural, but an exploration of human nature and the testing of family ties. It is heavy going, and Toby is not a protagonist one likes too much, but in the end, the effort of staying with the story is rewarding.