A female cop feels a target on her back in Tana French’s ‘The Trespasser’
It’s impossible to get tired of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels. She’s taken a smart approach with this series: Instead of piling improbable murder mystery after improbable murder mystery on the back of a single beleaguered protagonist, each of her books features a different lead detective, all but the first introduced as side characters in earlier installments.
When we first met Detective Antoinette Conway, she was a fiery secondary character in 2014’s “The Secret Place,” seen through the point of view of that novel’s principal, Detective Stephen Moran. In “The Trespasser,” French’s sixth and latest, Conway takes the lead, while Moran falls into a supporting role as her partner on the Murder Squad. This time, Conway gets to tell the story — in a novel that turns on narrative control, this makes her our hero.
It’s not hard to warm up to her, though she’s far from sweet and cuddly. “The stuff people think I should try to hide — being tall, being a woman, being half whatever — is the stuff I keep up front and in their faces. If they can’t handle it, I can use that.” She’s hard-edged and hot-tempered, smart and ambitious, with a biting sense of humor and a strong, distinctive voice — French always gets full points for style, but Conway may be her best narrator yet.
She spends the majority of the book on the verge of burnout or rage-induced aneurysm, in large part because of her precarious position on the Murder Squad. As the only woman — and woman of color — she feels the target on her back, the resentment and desire to put her in her place. When another detective groped her — a “joke” and power move from the Donald Trump playbook — she refused to laugh it off, and now everyone but Moran seems to wish she’d just stop making things uncomfortable and quit. Even discounting psychological strain, her leper status makes her job difficult — her paperwork gets urinated on in her locker or disappears altogether; she and Moran only get the most boring cases, bar brawls and domestic disputes gone wrong. Murder is supposed to be her dream job, but she’s thinking of leaving. “Two years of watching my back, watching every step and every word, in fight mode all day every day: my instincts are fried to smoking wisps.”
So the murder of Aislinn Murray looks, at first, like another standard domestic — female victim, dead in her home, dinner set for two and a flurry of text messages with her absent date. “If you want to kill someone, have enough respect for my time to make it someone, anyone, other than the most gobsmackingly obvious person in the world,” Conway thinks. But it doesn’t take long for this tidy case to go wobbly at the edges and start shifting shape. Murray’s best friend seems to be hiding something; there’s an awful lot of pressure to book the boyfriend on skimpy evidence; and Conway can swear she’s seen this victim before.
Questions lead to more questions, and she and Moran couldn’t be more excited, even as the answers start to shimmer with danger. The case becomes “a wild thing shooting out curls of possibility in every direction” and they chase down each one with a thrilled mix of hope and dread. They grow wary of Breslin, the senior detective tasked with backing them up/hovering over them, and his partner, McCann. The two pairs circle around each other, playing mind games straight out of a le Carré novel.
They wrestle for control of the case, and with each grab and yank, the story changes — pieces start and stop fitting, truths and lies spill out. Conway sees conspiracies, then wonders if she’s paranoid. She feels in constant danger of losing the plot: “Victims, witnesses, killers, [detectives], all frantically spinning stories to keep the world the way they want it, dragging them over our heads, stuffing them down our throats.” Conway may be the hero of her stories, but Breslin is the hero of his, Aislinn was the hero of hers; they all have to fight for air in a shared reality. “[E]very single one of their heads is crammed with stories they believe and stories they want to believe and stories someone else has made them believe, and every story is battering against the thin walls of the person’s skull, drilling and gnawing for its chance to escape and attack someone else, bore its way in and feed off that mind too.”
Underneath the plot twists — of which there are plenty, and good ones too — this is what “The Trespasser” is really about: the life-and-death struggle of owning one’s own story. That might sound abstrusely psychological, but it’s not — the book is pure pleasure, a fine-grained but fast-paced police procedural. French is one of the best thinkers and best plotters in the business, and she sells narrative control as a motivating force just as strong and concrete as love or greed. She knows how to take a fluttering concept and pin it, nice and tight, to a dead body.
Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel “Dead Soon Enough.”
Viking: 464 pp., $27
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