Tana French Is the Mystery Writer You Haven't Read Yet (but Should)
Tana French isn't the only female writer out there writing bestselling murder mysteries, she's just the best. Now now, I know reading is subjective, but as any devoted fan of the author will tell you, if you've immersed yourself in mystery — and have read any or all of the popular novels with "girl" in the title — you know French is special. There's an inexplicable magic to her writing.
They say don't meet your heroes, and yet the closest I've come to that is when I spoke on the phone with French about her sixth novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Trespasser. What are you supposed to say to the woman who is your go-to answer whenever anyone asks you who your favorite author is? The woman behind the series you're constantly pressuring your friends, co-workers, and the occasional stranger on the street to read? What if she didn't live up to my lofty expectations?
It was clear my nerves were unfounded, though, as soon as she started speaking. She responded to my questions with thoughtful and delightfully funny responses, and the way she came alive when describing her characters would have you believing they are very dear old friends. It probably doesn't hurt that her voice is warm and lightly accented, hinting at her time growing up as an "international brat," and deeply engrossing, a nod to her theatrical background.
Ahead, here's what she told me about what unexpected experience inspired her latest novel, why the scariest book she's ever read was so intense she had to stop reading halfway through, and how there may be a TV adaptation on the horizon. She even gave me some hints about her next novel in the series. And don't worry, there aren't any spoilers for The Trespasser, but there are some minor spoilers for her earlier books.
POPSUGAR: How would you describe your style of mystery writing to readers new to your novels?
Tana French: Psychological slash literary mystery, where the emphasis isn't on the detective or the narrator being in physical danger, but psychological danger.
PS: Typically, you take a minor character from the previous book and highlight them as the protagonist slash narrator in the next book. Why did you decide to keep the two main detectives from The Secret Place the same for The Trespasser?
TF: In The Secret Place, they had spent that book building up a really good relationship, from Stephen's perspective. Gradually they had moved from really not wanting anything to do with each other to realizing that their differences actually work quite well together and that they function better as a team than they do solo. Stephen is such a people pleaser that he has a tendency to morph into whatever other people want him to be, and Antoinette is the opposite and has absolutely no intention of ever morphing into anything anyone wants her to be so there. So together they actually balance each out quite well, and by the end of The Secret Place it had become obvious that if they had any say in it at all they were going to be working together. So when I started thinking about writing from Antoinette's perspective, which seemed like a fun idea. She has absolutely no time for the idea of give and take or doing anything to make things run more smoothly. It's fun to write somebody who doesn't give one single damn about any of that. When I started thinking about writing her, it became obvious that Stephen was going to have to be involved. They were a two-for-one package deal.
PS: I've read that some very ordinary objects or moments inspired your past novels. What inspired The Trespasser?
TF: I'm very lucky, I know a retired detective who's an incredibly good guy and who has answered just a ridiculous number of questions for me over the past 10 years. I owe him basically everything accurate about police work and procedure that's in any of my books. I rang him up, a few years back, to ask him, "OK, how would you interview a suspect in this specific set of circumstances?" And he gave me a quick demonstration just off the top of his head using me as the hypothetical suspect. This is a really nice guy. He's a cheerful, lovely, friendly, genuinely nice man. And the minute he started doing this demonstration of what an interrogation is like, he just transformed. Like somebody flipped a switch into this full-on driving force that was locked onto me like a Pit Bull. It wasn't that he was being aggressive exactly, it was just that he was going to get what he wanted and nothing was going to stand in his way. He was the absolute controller of this situation. It was like having a train bearing down on you. I was only on the phone, and I was leaning back to get away from the force of this.
I started thinking, what would it be like to be in a situation where everybody around you has this extra skill that they can just switch into like that? What would it be like if it was turned on you every day from all directions? That stuck with me. When I was finishing up The Secret Place, I was thinking about Antoinette, who already wasn't getting on well with her squad, and they were already kind of nipping at her heels, trying to get her out. What if the squad turned on her in that way, so she was bearing the full force of that every day? What would that do to your mind, being on the receiving end of that in a place where you're supposed to be the one in power? I thought, what if she's in that position, and she runs into a case where she can no longer tell how much is real and how much is her paranoia as a result of being under this pressure? And that's where The Trespasser came out of.
"My god, if I ever end up under investigation, one look at my Google history and I am going to be in big trouble."
PS: Do you have other ways you research your books?
TF: There's a certain amount of computer searching. My god, if I ever end up under investigation, one look at my Google history and I am going to be in big trouble. [Laughing] I've researched things that most people probably don't need to know about.
PS: Who's been your favorite narrator slash protagonist of the series?
TF: If I was going to be friends with one of them, it would definitely be Cassie out of The Likeness. She's nothing like me, but she's the one I'd get on best with. For my favorite, it's always going to be Rob Ryan in In the Woods. It was my first book, practically nobody even knew I was writing it. I was a ridiculously broke actor, and I was turning down work, which, if you know any actors, you know actors just don't do that. But I was turning down work in order to finish this book. It was really just me and the book, and the hope that this would somehow go somewhere. None of the others have been like that, so Rob Ryan's always going to be my favorite.
PS: Speaking of In the Woods, why did you decide to leave aspects of the ending open-ended, and do you have an idea of what happened to Rob's childhood friends?
TF: I know fairly clearly what happened to them. I was getting towards the end of In the Woods, and I thought, what am I going to do about this? The most important thing to me is characters. To make these characters into real, three-dimensional, intricate people who the audience know intimately by the time they finish. Rob is the kind of guy who when he gets to the verge of something that will change everything, he turns and runs as far and as fast as he can in the opposite direction. That's what he does when his relationship with Cassie takes a new turn. He just runs as far as he can. That's who he is. So toward the end of In the Woods for him to go into the dark places of his mind and find what's been waiting there for him — find the solution to this mystery — would take the hugest leap of his life. He just would not be capable of making that leap. So I had the choice. I could either turn him into a completely different character in the last chapter, which would be cheap and cheesy. Or else I could have some other character do a deus ex machina and just pop up with a solution out of nowhere instead of it coming from him, which, again, cheap and cheesy. Or else I could let this be a book not about the mystery but about his journey as a character and leave the mystery unsolved and just stay true to the character rather than to the genre convention.
PS: Why did you decide to introduce a supernatural element into The Secret Place, when the rest of your books have been pretty realistic?
TF: The reality of each book is dictated by the narrator. The world of the book is whatever the narrator's seeing and experiencing. In The Secret Place, there are two different worlds going on. There's the world of the teenage girls, where reality is very shifting and very untrustworthy and can transform and turn itself inside out at any time. Where there are events that, from their point of view, are definitely supernatural. But there's also the world of the detectives. Which is much more grounded. More solid. More clearly defined. And in their world, all of those supernatural events have a perfectly rational explanation. For teenagers, the world is a slippery, shifting, strange, and completely unfathomable thing. Everything is transforming at such speed: your body, your mind, your friendships, your relationships, what you want from the world, what you think you should be. Your sense of yourself isn't stable. So it just made sense to show their reality as having that same slippery and constantly transforming and unpredictable quality.
PS: How do you feel about book adaptations? Do you think the book is always better than the film?
TF: I think that the ones that I've seen that have worked best have been the ones where there's been a strong understanding of the difference in genre. How you can't be 100 percent literal in moving something from book to film. Because it's not the same genre. Get really good actors and trust them to do a lot of the work. I'm actually hopefully going to find out what I think about adaptations fairly soon because the first five books have been optioned by Fremantle and in active development with US and UK networks, but nothing's definite. I'm not banking on anything, but these are amazing people, and I would be really fascinated to see what they do with them. Fingers crossed.
PS: Do you have any favorite mystery TV shows you'd recommend?
TF: Oh I LOVED The Bridge. It's a Swedish slash Danish coproduction, and it's two detectives, one's Swedish, a woman who has, it's not specified, but she has what's fairly clearly Asperger's syndrome, and a kind of down-to-earth, crude, rough-edged Danish detective. The acting's so amazing that it's just a joy to watch.
PS: Just rereading passages from some of your novels (especially Broken Harbor) still gives me goosebumps, which to me is a marker of a good mystery. How do you judge what makes a really good mystery?
TF: I like the ones that are heavy on atmosphere and heavy on psychological intrigue rather than on physical gore. I'm not really interested in how elaborately gory the murders can be. I'm more interested in how deeply you can go into the mysteries and the dark places inside the characters' minds. I like things that cross the genre boundaries, that aren't quite mystery, that could fit in just as well as literary fiction. The Secret History has to be one of the best mystery novels ever as well as being an amazing literary novel, and the same for Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, which isn't exactly a mystery because you find out fairly early what's gone on. But it's an amazing story of how a murder comes to happen, the same way that The Secret History is. The question isn't whodunit, the question is whatdunit, and that's the mystery that you're tracking.
PS: What's the scariest book you've read?
TF: The ones that creep me out most tend not to be mysteries so much, they tend to be things that are eerie and atmospheric. Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger is utterly beautiful and the atmosphere is so powerful that I had to stop reading it halfway through because it was freaking me out too much. I'm a wimp about atmosphere. I'm very easily sucked in.
"People were saying, well, you might consider going by your initials because there are people who won't read mysteries written by women. I don't know, in case I go into labor in midchapter or something?"
PS: There are a handful of female mystery writers having a moment right now. What are some hurdles women, specifically, face writing in this genre?
TF: I think mystery is one of the genres where women have been such a strong presence since day one. Look at Agatha Christie, you know what I mean? She rocked the genre for so long. Dorothy Sayers and Josephine Tey. It's always been an area where women have been very, very comfortable. It's very hard to tell whether mysteries by women are seen in a different light than mysteries written by men or whether they're seen sometimes as having a less-than-universal message. When I was starting out, people were saying, well, you might consider going by your initials because there are people who won't read mysteries written by women. I don't know, in case I go into labor in midchapter or something? I have no idea.
PS: Are you already thinking about your next novel? Any hints as to who it will follow?
TF: I'm kind of striking off on something a little bit different this time. I've started it, and the protagonist this time is not a detective and hasn't shown up in any of the other books. There's still a murder in there, because I don't know how to write a book without throwing a dead body in there somewhere, you know, to get the action moving. But this guy isn't a detective and doesn't have any desire to be a detective. He's just an ordinary nice guy who at the lowest point of his life finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation and has to work out not just what he needs to do about it but where exactly he fits in. I'm very early on, I don't actually know what I'm doing yet. I'm just kind of diving in there and hoping there's a book somewhere.
Be sure to check out The Trespasser, and you should really just read Tana French's entire Dublin Murder Squad series!