I read Tana French’s first novel of Dublin’s Murder Squad, In the Woods, two years ago. Her novels aren’t a series, but they’re linked: a character from In the Woods, Cassie Maddox, is the point-of-view character in her second novel, The Likeness, and a character from The Likeness, Frank Mackey, takes over the narration in her third novel, Faithful Place. This connection through characters gives the books some continuity even though they’re not otherwise linked, and we get all the benefits of stand-alone mysteries and many of the benefits of a series as well. French’s mysteries are terrific: well-written, with plots that are interesting but not over-elaborate. But the best thing about them is the characterization. She has a great deal of insight into human relationships, and the ways in which they crack and fall apart under pressure; this is really what drives her novels and makes them gripping to read. Faithful Place was no exception, and indeed maybe the best one I’ve read so far.
19-year-old Frank Mackey was planning to leave Dublin with Rosie Daly. They were deeply in love, at escape velocity, ready to leave their dysfunctional families and the prison that was their part of the city: Faithful Place, in the Liberties. But on that dark night, Rosie never showed up at the abandoned house where they were supposed to meet. Frank found a note she’d left, saying she couldn’t abandon her family, and he left for England alone with a broken heart.
Two decades later, Frank is in the undercover squad, divorced, with a small daughter, Holly. He’s never looked back to his past, and he’s not in touch with his family; he has enough trouble navigating the tricky shoals of custody. But a call from his sister shatters that fragile peace. In that abandoned house, someone has found a suitcase, with Rosie Daly’s clothes, birth certificate, and the ferry tickets she was supposed to use to go to England with Frank. For the first time in twenty years, Frank has to return to Faithful Place, to find out what really happened to Rosie Daly — and what happened to the family that made him what he is.
This is a tricky kind of murder mystery to write: the cold case. Tana French does it perfectly, with a mix of Frank’s memories about the past — about Rosie, especially, to help us understand what a lively, vibrant, sexy, sweet girl she was — and scenes from the present, to help us see what both Frank and Faithful Place have twisted into over time. Frank’s family is a horror of abuse and lies and unchecked alcoholism and bigotry and manipulation: he has protected his daughter from ever meeting them, and when he discovers that his ex-wife thought Holly had “a right” to know the Mackeys, his fury is so towering that we begin to understand his fierce desire to escape with Rosie as a teenager.
One of the questions this novel addresses is whether anyone can change over time. The past is brought up so forcefully to Frank that he almost can’t acknowledge the possibility that Faithful Place could change. He sees it as a time capsule, though he has changed a great deal during his time away. But the place and its inhabitants drag on him, too, and he finds himself lying and manipulating, drinking and shouting, when he spends too much time there. How can he act as an agent of the law, when he’s so close to the case himself? How can he work for the police, when no one in Faithful Place trusts the police? Does he really trust the police himself (and is that why he went into undercover work)? You can see why I like French’s mysteries: they are complicated and real. Even Frank’s ex-wife is a real character instead of a caricature, wary and distanced but still caring. And I ought to say that, while this plot sounds (and often is) quite grim, the book is far from humorless. Frank has a sense of humor and perspective on himself and his situation that makes him wryly attractive and intelligent — much appreciated in this world of deeply depressed detectives.
This is my third Tana French mystery and my favorite so far (despite having thoroughly enjoyed the first two.) I can’t wait to read Broken Harbor. Have you read her work? What do you think?