The Short Version: Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy is the straightest arrow on the force. He’s the one you call when you want a solve and he does it by the book, 100%. When his boss hands him a major case in order to make up for his… shortcomings during a previous case, it looks like it’s the slam-dunk return to form he needs. But nothing seems to add up correctly about this case and Scorcher finds himself questioning the very foundations of his job as a Detective.
The Review: For some reason, I was wary about approaching this book. Maybe it’s that Faithful Place, as excellent a novel as it was, seemed to lack a little something when compared to In the Woods and The Likeness. I know a lot of people who’ve said Faithful Place was the best “Dublin Murder Squad” novel so far – and I’ll admit that it was strong all around, especially in making the central case rather air-tight and fully plausible. But it never captured my imagination in the way the previous two novels did – I find myself having to ask “…what was that one again?” whereas I can rattle off moments from the first two some four or five years after reading them. So despite the promising hints from the jacket copy, I found myself having other things to read. Buying other books instead of this one. Saying to myself that I would “get to it eventually.”
Well, after finding myself facing the prospect of a train ride from Boston to New York without a book, I ducked into the Harvard COOP on my way to South Station on Sunday and found myself thinking that ‘eventually’ had finally arrived. Oh, I was looking for another book – one they turned out to have at the South Station kiosk – but this one, I thought, would do just nicely. And within five pages, I realized I’d been wrong to stay away. Tana French is, without exaggeration, one of the best writers working today. Not just in the mystery genre, where she blows away most of her competition without breaking a sweat but in English letters altogether. Perhaps I’m subconsciously hyperbolizing in order to defend a ‘genre’ author, whose work would otherwise be slightly derided for simply having the gall to sit on a shelf marked something other than LITERATURE at your local bookstore. But just give yourself five minutes with any of Ms. French’s four novels and I guarantee you, you’ll find yourself under her spell.
I’ve consistently recommended her books to friends on the grounds that there’s something not-quite-normal about them. The first two books, especially, have a terrific Gothic sense about them: mysterious disappearances, creepy estates, a doppelganger… it’s the stuff I was taught in “Poe & The Gothic” my freshman year of college. Only it never feels like “oh, she’s using the things I was taught in my Gothic Literature class” – instead, it feels like something entirely realistic and even new. It feels like the first time anyone has used these tropes, no matter how worn out the reader knows they may be. But it wasn’t until this book that I realized what, exactly, Ms. French was capturing in the eerieness of these novels: evil.
There’s a moment, when Scorcher and his partner discover something that puts them so strongly onto the scent of the killer that it sets off a sort of animalistic warning in both of them. Scorcher describes it as existing in his temples and head bones – his partner’s seems to appear in his mouth. For some of us, it’s hair raised on the back of the neck or on our arms. No matter where it appears (mine tends to be the back of my hairline and up around my ears), it is an instinctive sense that something is not right. And what is evil, really, but something that is not right. In less than a page, Ms. French manages to bring the classical ideas of Good and Evil into the 21st Century in a way that has evaded even some of our most highly-lauded writers – because she puts it in terms that are so simple, you want to smack your forehead. The Gothic is all about the evil that actually exists in the world, that seems to come from our own minds as much as it does from anything otherworldly… and where better to examine that than in crime?
And boy howdy is the crime here a brutal one. All of the crimes in this series have, in one way or another, been heinous… but this one, the premeditated and even rational murder of two children followed by a horribly bloody incident that finishes off the husband and nearly takes out the wife… it’s the stuff of nightmares. But we hear about “the stuff of nightmares” so often that it’s hard to be affected by these stories anymore – unless there’s something else. A mysterious animal that seems to be living in the walls of the house, almost poltergeist-esque rearrangements/disappearances of household items, and even the setting (a ‘ghost’ estate outside of Dublin, left half-completed when the crash hit) lead the reader into a sense of wondering whether or not there’s something else at work here. And that’s why the eventual denouement is as shattering and scary as it is: because human beings set ourselves up to believe the spooky story in order to assuage our tender brains that evil must come from somewhere or something else. That a human being cannot be the one to’ve perpetrated an act without some. other. explanation. And when you lose that, it can break down even the most stoic of men – like our man Scorcher.
I will say that Scorcher is the least likable of French’s heroes yet. I remember him, vaguely, from Faithful Place as being an absolute git. We’re more predisposed to take his side here, as he’s our narrator, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to throttle him. As we watch the case spiral out of his control and, concurrently, his own life start to wobble, it’s hard not to dislike him for his attempts to double down. We want to side with his young trainee partner and believe that he’s misreading the facts of the case – and that, too, makes the eventual resolution painful. There are no winners here, even on the winning side.
But I think the somewhat unlikeable hero does a disservice to the novel, in the end. It makes it less enjoyable to read – because even where Frank Mackey and Rob Ryan had their flaws, they were still, deep down, likable. But I cannot say I liked Scorcher Kennedy – and nothing the author could do would change that. Not introducing extenuating family circumstances, not his redemptive actions throughout the novel – nothing. But the fact that I didn’t like him didn’t stop me from liking his place in the book, if that makes sense. I just wish he hadn’t been the one we were meant to tie everything onto. Although perhaps that’s also part of what Ms. French meant to accomplish here. This is a book meant for after-the-crash – it is far bleaker than anything else she’s written until now.
Rating: 4 out of 5. There are slight signs of formula here – the creepy holes in the wall to catch the mysterious creature are a liiiiiiittle too much to be believed at times and it becomes clear pretty damn quickly what’s actually going on, even if she tries to throw the reader off the scent. It’s not like the still-unexplained mystery from Rob Ryan’s childhood. But I can forgive such things when she writes these beautiful descriptions of people and places, making them seem so damn real that they could walk through your door. And the nearly-40-page interrogation scene that takes place near the end of the book is nothing short of masterful. It feels like half the length and like it could’ve gone on half as long again without anyone noticing. A thing of true beauty.