Monday, September 22, 2008

Tana French: Two novels--Psychological or Police Procedurals?

Tana French's first two novels are strange ones. The two are linked in that they are supposedly police procedurals, involving Dublin's Murder Squad (which doesn't exist according to French) in action, but the focus is almost as strong, if not stronger, on the psychological aspects. The plots are relatively straightforward and uncomplicated. Those who have read a number of mysteries will be able to "solve" the crime long before the last page. However, saying that doesn't take away from the enjoyment of watching two of French's cops go about their jobs in a highly professional manner, most of the time, while hampered by certain unprofessional doubts and, to a greater extent, the past. In fact, it is their own past that provides the major hurdle for them, for the murders themselves in the two novels do not provide the focus of interest; it is the past of the officers involved in the investigation that makes these two novels absorbing.

For example, in her first novel, In the Woods, a young girl is murdered outside a small town, in the vicinity of an archaeological dig, which sets the tone. The association of her murder with delving into the past is felt most strongly by the officer in charge of the investigation--Robert (Rob) Ryan. Actually, that isn't his full name; it is Adam Robert Ryan. Ryan dropped his first name to conceal his identity. Years ago as a young boy, he was involved in the disappearance and possibly the murder of his two best friends. They had gone up the same hill that the body of the young girl was discovered. Hours later, a search party found Ryan in shock, wearing bloody tennis shoes. His two friends were never found. He had blanked out the events of that afternoon and wasn't able to say what happened. His two friends are missing to this day.

When the body of the murdered girl was discovered, Ryan had to struggle with memories, he thought had been buried and long forgotten. He had dropped his first name. Nobody knew of his association with the earlier disappearance. But, he should have informed his superiors of this involvement with the earlier crime and handed over the investigation to another officer. Instead, he decided to keep his connection with the earlier crime hidden.

However, others soon wondered if there was a link between this murder and the disappearance of the two young people a decade or more ago. Part of the pressure now on Ryan was the fear that he would eventually be identified.

The novel concentrates on the effects of the investigation on Ryan and of the conflict brought about by his surfacing memories from the past. The novel is more about Ryan and the psychological battles he fought during the investigation than it is about the murdered young girl, especially during the second part of the novel.

Those who prefer stories that conclude with all the loose ends neatly and nicely tied up will be disappointed/frustrated with this one. And, it is deliberate also, not just carelessness on the part of a young writer. This may be her first novel, but French knows what she's about.

Her second novel, The Likeness, picks up, sort of, about six months later. Rob Ryan's partner, with whom he had a close relationship, Cassie Maddox, has transferred to the Domestic Violence Squad, for she was one of the psychologically walking wounded, a victim of the investigation. She now has a boyfriend, Sam O'Neill, whom she met during the investigation. He is still with the Murder Squad, so when he calls her one morning, in shock, and pleads with her to come out to the scene of a murder, she agrees, more out of curiosity than any conscious desire to get involved. She is aware that Frank Mackey, head of the undercover division for the Dublin police, is also on the scene.

The victim is a young woman who turns out to be the exact double of Cassie Maddox, which is why O'Neill was in shock. At first he thought it was her. According to the identification she's carrying, her name is Alexandra (Lexie) Madison. When O'Neill had a police computer search done on her name, Frank Mackey turned up because he had had the name flagged. Any inquiries about Alexandra Madison would be brought to his attention.

And, just as in the first novel, the past of a police officer rears up to complicate her life. Prior to her assignment to the Murder Squad, Cassie Maddox had been with the undercover squad, and her boss was Frank Mackey. Together they created an identity for her. She was a student at the local college, attempting to get information about drug dealing on campus. Her false identity was Alexandra Madison.

The victim not only looked like her twin, but she had also taken on the false identity created for Cassie. Lexie Madison was a student at a different college this time, having "dropped" out of the college that Cassie had been working on. She was living with four others in a large house, and the five of them were known on campus as a closeknit and exclusive group.

Mackey got the "brilliant" idea of having Cassie substitute for the murdered woman. They would say that she was stabbed, but that she was found in time to save her life. Cassie would go undercover once again, pretending to be the woman who was murdered while pretending to be Cassie's undercover identity. One more point, Cassie left the undercover group when one of the drug dealers went psycho and stabbed her, not because he found her out but because she just happened to be there at the wrong time.

Again, the murder plot is not complex or complicated. The focus, again, is on Cassie's relationship to the victim, who had assumed her identity. Her acceptance by the victim's friends placed her in an extremely close and warm relationship with four interesting and intelligent people, and this, together with her increasing identification with the murder victim, resulted in a certain estrangement between Cassie and the police. She began to identify with the victim's friends and to defend them to Mackey and O'Neill, who were beginning to wonder about one of the victim's friends.

In both novels, then, the primary interest is not so much on the victim, but upon the investigating officers whose own history, along with a problem of identity, provided the most intriguing complication and complexity in the two.

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