The Witch Elm

by Tana French

On the first page of Tana French’s novel, THE WITCH ELM, Toby Hennessy tell us, “I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.”

And at that moment, no one would argue. He’s just negotiated a difficult patch at his job as a publicist for an art gallery. He’s getting drunk with two long-time mates.  He’s in love with a great woman, Melissa. He envisions an even better future ahead.

But that night, his apartment is burglarized; he’s badly beaten and ends up in the hospital with a traumatic brain injury.

That’s just the beginning of several turns of luck in Toby’s life.

Released from the hospital, but plagued with problems seeing, walking and remembering, Toby suffers from PTSD and fears being back in his apartment. His close-knit family suggest that he move into his Uncle Hugo’s house, the hub of the Hennessy family life. Uncle Hugo, a genealogist, has a terminal brain tumor. Having Toby there can be a help to both.

It also turns out to be a good chance to reconnect with his cousins, Susanna and Leon. Susanna, a Wild Girl in her teens, has turned into a traditional stay-at-home mom for her two kids. Leon, bullied in his teens, now flaunts his gayness. But as they talk, helped by lots of weed and alcohol, Toby realizes how unaware he was of the nightmarish lives that his cousins had during high school. Was he insensitive? Is his brain injury preventing him from remembering those times accurately?

When Susanna’s children, playing on the spreading elm tree in the backyard, discover a skull inside the tree, life for the Hennessys takes a dark turn.

It could be an ancient human one. It could be a fake from a play. That’s what the family want to believe. The police soon learn otherwise: it’s human and it’s modern. And the person it belongs to was murdered.

This was French’s first stand-alone novel after launching her Dublin Murder Squad books. In some aspects, it’s a fresh, modern take on the country house murder mystery that Agatha Christie made famous: a murder takes place at a grand, old house with plenty of suspects who had motive, opportunity and method. But unlike Christie, who focuses on who and how, French is focused on character and why a person under intense pressure kills.

In her Dublin Murder Squad mystery series, French brings readers directly into detectives’ minds and lives as they investigate. For Toby, the detectives he encounters — for his beating and for the skull in the tree — are opaque. They attempt a matey approach of helping to get to the bottom of a bad situation. But they wear their suspicions like an old trench coat. Toby, doubting himself and his memory, explores the possible suspects in his own mind.

French is gifted at drawing characters who are flawed and struggle with right and wrong. In this novel, perspectives and judgments shift as Toby doubts his perceptions and memories and his cousins tell of experiences they kept well-hidden at the time.

By the end of the book, Toby still believes himself to be lucky. He has lost most of the things he felt so lucky about that long ago evening, yet he also understands there are worse possibilities than his current life.

“It’s taken me this long to start thinking about what luck can be,” he tells us, “how smoothly and deliciously deceptive, how relentlessly twisted and knotted in on its own hidden places, and how lethal.”

About the Author: Tana French (1973 – )

Tana French is an American-Irish writer and actress. She lives in Dublin, which is the setting for many of her novels.

Her father was an economist specializing in resource management in the developing world. French grew up moving around. She attended Trinity College Dublin where she trained in acting. She has lived in Dublin since 1990.

In her late 30s, she rekindled her interest in writing during the months-long lulls between theater castings.

Her first novel was IN THE WOODS (2007) and was the foundation of her Dublin Murder Squad mysteries, which share characters in differing levels of prominence in the individual books of the series. It was followed by THE LIKENESS (2008), FAITHFUL PLACE (2010), BROKEN HARBOR (2012), THE SECRET PLACE (2014), THE TRESPASSER (2016), THE WITCH ELM (2018) and THE SEARCHER (2020), a stand-alone novel.

Her work has won multiple awards. Her novels, IN THE WOODS and THE LIKENESS, form the basis for the eight-episode BBC series “Dublin Murders,” which aired in late 2019.


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