“I’m always looking for the potential mystery in things,” said author Tana French, on the phone from her Dublin home. “I think that’s what makes a mystery writer.”
Being a mystery writer has worked out pretty well for French, who’s written eight acclaimed crime-fiction novels; seven of them New York Times bestsellers, and the eighth, “The Searcher,” released Oct. 6.
French didn’t start out as a writer, despite always being drawn to it. She was born in Vermont, to an “Irish and American and Russian and Italian” family, and grew up “all over the world.” Settling in Dublin in her late teens, she studied theater at Trinity College and became a professional actor.
Mysteries, though, kept ticking away in her head. While in her 30s, working on an archaeological dig between roles (she’s long had an interest in archaeology), a thought occurred to her.
“There was a wood, and I was thinking, what a great place for kids to play. Instead of stopping there, like a normal person, I thought, what if three kids went in there and only one came out, and had no memory of the other two? What would that do to his mind? What if he became a detective someday, and a case brought him back to the woods?”
Longtime French readers will recognize, instantly, the plot of French’s 2007 debut novel, “In the Woods.” But French, at the time, scribbled the idea on a bit of paper and went off to her next acting gig. “I found the paper, a year later — coffee stains on a phone bill — and I thought, I want to know what happens. I realized nobody else was going to write it for me. The only way I could find out what happened was to write it myself.”
“In the Woods” won a trifecta of awards for debut mysteries that year — the Edgar, the Anthony and the Macavity — and a new career for French was launched. Something else was launched, too: the Dublin Murder Squad, the police department setting for French’s first six novels. Unlike many crime novelists, she doesn’t use the same detective/narrator from one book to the next; instead, a secondary character in one book may step up to narrate the next.
French said she didn’t exactly plan it that way, but it made sense to her. “I love reading the standard series when you follow the one narrator through the ups and downs,” she said, “but I realized that wasn’t what I wanted to write.” Her narrator for “In the Woods,” Rob Ryan, was at a crucial turning point in his life, and “I liked writing about something where the stakes are so high, not just on a professional level but a personal level.”
Though French loved writing in Rob’s voice, she couldn’t imagine putting him at the fore of a case that felt less significant. “I thought, OK, I can keep throwing the same poor character into huge life-changing situations for book after book, but for one thing, that’s not realistic. For another, he’s going to be in a straitjacket by book four.” She wondered aloud why some fictional detectives — facing life and death, case after case — “don’t just go, ‘I quit, I’m going to drive a bus during the day.’”
So Cassie Maddox, a secondary detective in “In the Woods,” came to the forefront to narrate French’s second book, “The Likeness.” Subsequent books featured a revolving door of narrators, all of them from that same room at the Dublin police department: Frank Mackey (“Faithful Place”), Scorcher Kennedy (“Broken Harbor”), Stephen Moran (“The Secret Place”), Antoinette Conway (“The Trespasser”).
And then it seemed like a good time to mix things up. “I had written six books from the point of view of a detective,” French said. “And while I thought that was fascinating and I’m blown away by what detectives do, I thought, there are so many other viewpoints in the investigation of a murder.” In “The Witch Elm,” her main character is “a victim, a witness and a suspect,” letting French explore a crime story from other angles.
And if the title of her latest book, “The Searcher,” makes you think of a famous John Ford Western, that’s no mistake. This novel, another stand-alone, emerged at a time when French was intrigued by the genre. “I started thinking that the settings of Westerns have a lot of resonance with the west country of Ireland,” she said. “That Western sense of a place that’s so distant, both culturally and geographically, from the center of power. For the people living there, the power brokers have no real sense of what their lives are like — they have to make their own rules.”
She reimagined that classic Western trope of a stranger, arriving in town: Cal Hooper, a retired Chicago cop who’s bought a crumbling house in an Irish village. (In order for him to be “a proper stranger,” she said, he couldn’t be Irish; an Irishman would have some sort of remote connection to the village, which the townspeople would find out. “Ireland’s like that.”) He arrives in town, “rolls into the saloon, he’s got a few secrets, he doesn’t answer questions, he’s an agent of change.” “The Searcher” feels different from French’s previous books — there’s a sparseness to the setting that contrasts with the bustle of the Dublin Murder Squad, or even the gathered family in “The Witch Elm” — but is no less addictive; the pages practically turn themselves.
French said she’s not very far along with her next novel yet. “I have an idea that I’m bouncing around, but like everyone else, everything’s been scuppered by COVID,” she said, noting that she has two children attending remote school and is therefore a bit distracted.
But she’s excited to jump in, “when things lessen up a little bit,” and spend some time with the characters, whoever they may be. French said she doesn’t plan out her plots in advance, and says she’s “in awe” of writers who are able to do so. Like acting, she said, her writing is character-based. “The plot comes out of the characters, so I can’t really know what character will be what until I’ve gotten to know them by writing them for a little while.”
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