By Tana French
In the Woods
It may be that your reaction to Tana French’s first four novels—police procedurals that become fascinating psychological thrillers—largely will depend on how much you enjoy prose that is lyrical, sometimes digressive, and often gorgeous. Such writing is rare in crime fiction. First–rate writers such as Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos give us prose that is lean, sensitive, and extremely effective, but rarely lyrical. They may well think such writing would interfere with their storytelling—indeed, might scare off some readers. But French’s poetic prose has helped win her critical praise, crime–fiction prizes, and a place on best–seller lists.
Of course, French’s success reflects not only the quality of her writing but the excellence of both her plots and her characterizations. She’s the most exciting new talent I’ve encountered in a dozen years of reviewing crime fiction. Indeed, she’s one of a handful of crime writers whose work I think transcends the genre and can be discussed simply as serious fiction—“literary,” if you will—of a high order.
French was born in Vermont, lived during her early years in Italy, Ireland, and Malawi, and settled in Dublin in 1990 to study acting at Trinity College. She still lives in Dublin, where she worked as an actor in her twenties before turning to fiction in her thirties. To explain my enthusiasm for her work, I want not only to summarize her plots but to quote her enough to give a sense of her luminous style. Here are the opening words of French’s first novel, In the Woods:
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming–of–age film set in small–town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch–sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses.
This prose poem continues for two pages and only at its ending hints that something terrible is about to happen to three children amid that idyllic setting. That opening also amounts to an unknown writer letting us know from the outset—warning us, perhaps—that she has serious things to say and she will say them in a voice all her own.
A 12–year–old girl is found dead on an ancient altar stone at an archeological dig outside Dublin, and Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are sent to investigate. As it happens, 20 years earlier, in 1984, when Ryan was a boy, he lived in that neighborhood. One day he and two friends ventured into the woods and the friends vanished. Ryan, who narrates the novel, was found, bloody, dazed, and unable to remember a thing. He’s since changed his name and when he returns as a detective, no one recognizes him as the boy who survived the first incident. He and we have to wonder if the girl’s death is somehow tied to the earlier disappearances.
As in all of French’s mysteries, the detectives have no shortage of suspects, starting with the dead girl’s family. Katy was a talented dancer, about to go off to ballet school. Might her father have been molesting her? Might her anxious mother have known? Might her older sister have been jealous? And what about all those muddy booted fellows working the dig? Might one of them fancied the girl?
There are complications, too, in the relationship between the two detectives. The partners are both attractive people, around 30 and unattached, and they have become the closest of friends—but no more—even though Rob sometimes spends the night on the couch at Cassie’s apartment. We wonder how long this platonic paradise can last; romance and marriage are emotional minefields in French’s books.
Her second novel, The Likeness, features her most convoluted plot. Its narrator is Cassie Maddox; in all these books, French makes a secondary character from one novel the narrator of the next. The set–up of this novel is that Cassie, as a young undercover agent in a campus drug case, created for herself the persona of an entirely fictional student called Alexandra “Lexie” Madison, complete with a birth certificate and family history. When the case was finished, Lexie ceased to exist. However, a young woman who is killed outside Dublin proves to have somehow adopted this same Lexie Madison identity. Moreover, the dead woman looks enough like Cassie to be her twin.
The now–dead Lexie had been living in a big country house with four other graduate students at Trinity College. Cassie’s boss in undercover operations, Frank Mackey, comes up with a most unorthodox proposal. The police will claim that Lexie survived the attack, and Cassie, her double, will return to the country house as Lexie to find her killer.
Throughout the novel, French treats us to sumptuous writing. Here, Cassie first glimpses the Georgian mansion at the center of the story:
Every proportion was balanced so perfectly that the house looked like it had grown there, nested in with its back to the mountains and all Wicklow dropping away rich and gentle in front of it, poised between the pale arc of the carriage sweep and the blurred dark–and–green curves of the hills like a treasure held out in a cupped palm.
Countless grace notes pop up out of nowhere: “Outside the French windows behind her head, a rabbit was nibbling the lawn, leaving little dark scatters of paw prints in the white dew.” And, this one: “The room felt cozy and quirky and a little unreal, like the den of some kids’-book woodland creature that would wear a frilly bonnet and make jam tarts.”
Cassie’s imitation of Lexie fools the three young men and one woman who are Lexie’s housemates. French provides a vivid portrait of these four rather effete people, hot–house flowers all, who are, of course, suspects in Lexie’s murder, but not the only ones. Among the others are some surly, impoverished villagers who, with their ancestors, have hated the aristocratic inhabitants of this mansion for a hundred years or more. “It’s like living in the middle of bloody Deliverance,” one of the grad students wails after a run–in with a hostile villager. In time, after the killer is revealed, French ends her tale with an unexpected and moving explanation of who the dead woman, the still mysterious “Lexie,” really was and why she deserves Cassie’s love and perhaps the reader’s as well.
French’s third novel, Faithful Place, is a departure in two ways. First, although it offers plenty of lovely writing, there are fewer of the long, lyrical passages that distinguish the first two books. Her prose is more spare, her storytelling more direct. The second difference has to do with milieu. In the Woods concerned relatively well–off people, and The Likeness focused on graduate students who were living quite comfortably in a mansion.
In Faithful Place we are deep in the bog of poor, often ignorant, often drunken, always rowdy and contentious working–class Irish. Faithful Place is a Dublin street whose inhabitants, if they’re not on the dole, are mostly plumbers, hairdressers, laborers, and petty criminals. Our narrator is Frank Mackey, the detective who supervised Cassie in The Likeness. He grew up on Faithful Place, but when he was 19, he and his girlfriend, Rosie, made plans to seek a better life in London, only to have her vanish on the night they were to leave. Heartbroken, Frank went on alone. Now, 22 years later, Rosie’s remains are found, and he returns to confront his hostile family and to find out who killed the girl he had loved so desperately.
For the story to work, French must make us feel the depth of Mackey’s passion for this girl. Here’s his first description of her:
Dublin was brown and gray and beige all over, back then, and Rosie was a dozen bright colors: an explosion of copper curls right down to her waist, eyes like chips of green glass held up to the light, red mouth and white skin and gold freckles … I just knew nothing in the world, not the Mona Lisa walking through the Grand Canyon with the Holy Grail in one hand and a winning Lotto ticket in the other, was ever going to be that beautiful.
Here, by contrast, is Mackey’s portrait of his mother:
My ma is your classic Dublin mammy:
Five foot nothing of curler–haired, barrel–shaped don’t–mess–with–this, fuelled by an endless supply of disapproval.
His father is an ignorant, drunken old reprobate who beat his wife and his children for as long as he could get away with it.
It’s enough to say of the novel’s plot that two of Mackey’s prime suspects in Rosie’s murder are his father and one of his brothers, although there are other possible killers up and down the street. Perhaps the highlight of the novel is the long account of an Irish wake at the Mackey home that is filled with laughter, singing, love, lust, hate, envy, and the inevitable drunken brawl. Mackey says in anguish, “It struck me that I had about three more minutes within range of that house before I lost my mind.” It’s a brilliant, angry, funny, heartbreaking scene, one that recalls scenes in James Joyce’s Dubliners, which is pretty much the gold standard for portraits of the misbegotten Irish.
Another comparison is relevant. The starting point of Faithful Place—the mystery of a young girl, about to elope, who instead vanishes—is a lot like that of Dennis Lehane’s great 2001 novel, Mystic River. French greatly admires Mystic River and I take this similarity of plot as homage from one artist to another. Let’s note that Lehane’s parents came to this country from Ireland so he’s Irish–American, whereas French was born in America but has lived in Ireland for more than 20 years, arguably making her American–Irish. Both nations can take pride in them.
French’s most recent novel, Broken Harbor—like both In the Woods and Faithful Place—takes a detective back to the scene of youthful trauma. This time the narrator is Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, a talented detective with a big ego. He’s called to investigate three murders in a failed housing development near the seaside town of Broken Harbor. Two children have been strangled in their beds, their father has been stabbed to death in the kitchen, and their mother has been stabbed and left seriously wounded and unable to speak.
Further complicating the mystery is a large number of holes in the walls of the home and an animal trap in its attic. It develops that the father, Patrick Spain, had lost his job and was about to lose the house, and had become convinced that an animal was in the attic and menacing his family. For a long time, we don’t know whether such a creature actually existed or if Patrick’s obsession with it reflected a mental breakdown that might have driven him to attack his family.
For his part, Kennedy is troubled to return to Broken Harbor, where tragedy struck his own family during his youth; his mental stability comes into question during the investigation. French is closely attuned to emotional issues. As a writer, she makes us anxious to know who killed the Spain family’s two children; as a mother she makes us grieve for those children.
French makes clear her anger at governmental and banking policies in Ireland that caused many couples in her generation to buy homes they couldn’t afford and ultimately lost in Ireland’s economic crash. The title she’s given this brooding novel suggests that, while we all seek safe, calm harbors in which to live our lives, the ones we find will often prove to be dark, storm–tossed, and irreversibly broken.
French does well by dozens of characters in the novels. Cassie Maddox, reflecting French’s own feminine sensibility, is certainly one of her finest creations, but she’s awfully good with men, too, and Cassie has competition in Frank Mackey, a man tormented by his lover’s death and his painful reunion with his family. French is clearly fascinated by detectives, and in creating hers, she digs deeply into the obsessions that drive them. Rob Ryan declares “… I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.” Scorcher Kennedy says more bluntly that Irish society is “turning feral” and “The final step into feral is murder. We stand between that and you.” Cassie adds, “Nothing in this world takes over your blood like a murder case, nothing demands you, mind and body, with such a huge and blazing and irresistible voice.”
Lawyers, it must be said, are rarely seen in these novels. Why? Because they would order their clients not to say a word, and thus stop French from creating long cat–and–mouse interrogations that reveal so much about both her detectives and their suspects. Politicians aren’t much seen, either, although French makes clear her scorn for them: “Irish politics are tribal, incestuous, tangled and furtive, incomprehensible even to many of the people involved.” Corruption, she adds, “is taken for granted, even grudgingly admired.”
I don’t find French’s novels without flaw. For example, in In the Woods, Cassie plays a trick on the killer to gain a confession. The trick was clever but, I thought, highly improbable. And I have a friend who dismisses The Likeness because he can’t accept the Cassie–as–Lexie imitation. I must say that device didn’t lessen my admiration for the novel, because French’s portrayal of Cassie’s impersonation of the dead woman was so ingenious. As an actor, French has thought a lot about how one woman can become another.
As I read these novels, whatever questions I had about this or that plot element didn’t matter much because I was swept along by the magic of French’s prose. I think that some of the greatest writing—The Great Gatsby, say—would cease to amaze if we stripped the stories of their poetry and confronted simply the bare bones of plot. The ability to write well is like being blessed with a pretty face: it helps you get away with a lot, including occasional lapses in logic.
People often ask me to recommend new novelists they might enjoy. Right now, if you love a mystery, particularly those marked by style, compassion, and unblinking portrayals of the human condition, you can’t do much better than Tana French.
Patrick Anderson, a novelist and journalist, reviews crime fiction for The Washington Post.
Stories of Supreme Court Law Clerks and Their Justices
Edited by Todd C. Peppers and Artemus Ward
University of Virginia Press, 2012
Review by Ronald Goldfarb
The U.S. Supreme Court is arguably the most powerful and certainly the least open institution of our government. The justices are reluctant to portray the Court’s workings. Their administrative staff is understandably secretive about their work assisting the Court’s functions. The law clerks, a small coterie of our top law school graduates, are sworn to a code of secrecy about their inside experiences. Few outsiders have the insights to describe the workings of the Court. Journalists Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong lifted the curtain a bit in their 1979 book The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court, which examined the Court’s 1969–1975 terms through commentaries by discrete sources. In 1988, Edward Lazarus, a law clerk to Justice Blackmun (1988–1989) included unprecedented revelations about his experiences as a law clerk in Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.
There has been a paucity of analyses of the Court from its justices’ clerks—the second-best sources of the Court’s inside workings—and the justices’ closest aides, until this new collection by two professors, Todd C. Peppers from Roanoke College and Washington and Lee University School of Law, and Artemus Ward, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University. Professor Ward cowrote (with David L. Weiden) an earlier book about Court clerks, Sorcerers’ Apprentices; Professor Peppers wrote Courtiers of the Marble Palace around the same time, but not knowing each other. Peppers then published a series of articles on clerks for the Journal of Supreme Court History. Later, they decided to expand their inquiries together. That collaboration led to this eccentric but revealing collection, In Chambers.
Peppers and Ward have included essays of their own and added some by former clerks who have gained a public reputation (Alan Dershowitz), some by legal scholars (Daniel Meador), others by clerks who later became judges
(J. Harvie Wilkinson), including stories of Supreme Court clerks who became justices (Rehnquist, Roberts, Breyer.). They have drawn on the available records of past clerks who became successful practitioners (Messrs. Belknap, Strook, Rauh, and Corcoran). The selections cover diverse subjects—the origins and evolution of clerkships, justices as mentors, clerks as disciples, the job as a form of intellectual boot camp, and the personal views and styles of several justices (Ginsburg, Rehnquist, Powell, Blackmun.) From them, readers get a rare inside glimpse of how the Court administers its work from these selected essays.
In the first century of the Court’s existence, the justices did their own work. In the earliest days of the Court, justices had clerical help and worked at home. In 1882, Justice Horace Gray of Massachusetts hired the first assistant, a law school graduate, who worked as a secretary and personal assistant.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. refined the institution of clerks, using Harvard graduates as law secretaries and serving as their mentor and confidant; they aided him ministering to his needs, both private and professional. They did not perform as modern clerks do, acting more as sounding boards.
Justice Brandeis professionalized the clerkships and used them for extensive research. He also socialized with them, working from his home office. Former clerk and later Harvard Law School professor Paul Freund fondly described those days: We “went to Brandeis each year in trepidation, worked with exhilaration, and left in exhaustion.”
In its second century much of the Courts’ increased workload was performed by clerks. Their lives intermingled and a fraternity or coterie of former clerks evolved, adding to the luster of the job and burnishing the reputation of their justices. That practice of professional intimacy has continued to the present. Clerks’ relationships with their justices are lifelong. Ideology is irrelevant (Richard Posner clerked for William J. Brennan). They comprise an elite society with continuing ties. Most relationships are formal, cordial, lasting.
The essays in this collection provide an interesting sociological panorama of both social and professional change. The first clerks were personal assistants; later they were personal aides but performed administrative research, and acting as sounding boards for discussions about cases. Later, as the work of the Court expanded, work moved to chambers at the Court, where clerks (multiple clerks, eventually) would screen cert. petitions and draft opinions and dissents, along with whatever collateral research their justices ask for (speeches, books, articles, etc.) Today, each justice has four clerks; the chief, five.
Involved in all aspects of the justices’ work as their clerks are, the justices all are especially sensitive about the importance of abiding by constitutional limitations on exercising judicial power. They are conscious and respectful of the fact that clerks are not covered by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, not having been appointed by the president nor confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Progressive as it is jurisprudentially, the Supreme Court has not been on the frontier of social advancement in its employment of clerks. There were no African American clerks until 1948 when Justice Frankfurter employed William Coleman. Even Justice Thurgood Marshall employed only one of his first 28 clerks from the African American community, none from Howard University, his alma mater. The first woman clerk, Lucile Lomen, was hired by Justice Douglas in 1944. Some justices were concerned women might not be suited for this demanding work. A 1998 USA Today article by Court watcher Tony Mauro pointed out that there was a “dearth of minority clerks”—African American, Asian, and Hispanic—at the end of the 20th century.
Most justices did, and still do, choose most of their clerks from Ivy League schools, and some, such as Brandeis and Frankfurter, recruited mostly from Harvard. Justices often chose clerks from their home states, Black from Alabama, Douglas from Washington State. They also favored clerks from their alma maters. Harlan Fiske Stone chose clerks from Columbia, and sent them back as professors there (Handler, Gelhorn, Wechsler, Lusky). Now justices often use feeder clerkships from circuit courts to recruit their clerks. Justice Skelly Wright, for example, forwarded many of his clerks to Justice Black after a year with him on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Many justices think a year in the “minors” develops better clerks for the greater responsibilities and demands of the Supreme Court.
Most justices experienced enduring friendships with their clerks. They lunched together and socialized occasionally with their families. Justice Black’s clerks lived with him for the few years after his wife died and before he remarried. Only Justice Douglas’ clerks had trying experiences in what they called “boot camp” in a harsh and demanding, bordering on hostile, environment. Douglas called his clerks “the lowest form of human life,” though all emerged from exemplary scholastic careers and many went on to estimable careers.
Some justices, Holmes and Frankfurter for example, pushed their clerks to careers of public service rather than making money in private practice. Holmes urged his clerks to pursue the “life of ideas rather than of action.” Felix Frankfurter told clerk Coleman that a lawyer is either “a social engineer or he’s a parasite on society.” One of Frankfurter’s clerks described his experience as “an invitation … to a wider, richer life than one had supposed oneself capable of.”
Interestingly, the justices’ jurisprudential ideologies were not always reflected in their personal relationships with their clerks. Justice Douglas, an avid liberal in his 36 years on the Court, terrorized his clerks. Cardozo had very little to do with his clerks. Wiley Rutledge, also a consistent liberal in his short period on the Court, rarely socialized with his clerks and had no close relations with them (he died at 55 of a cerebral hemorrhage after six–plus years on the Court.)
Justice Charles Evans Whittaker, who came to the Court with uniquely extensive experiences as a longtime, experienced practitioner and later as a federal trial and appellate court judge, has been judged as an undistinguished justice (he retired after five years). Whittaker, this essay reveals, felt overwhelmed by his relatively parochial background and could be disdainful and dismissive of his subordinates. He suffered anxiety and depression and fragile emotional health that interfered with his otherwise “dignified and business–like” style, one former clerk suggested.
Chief Justice Earl Warren used three clerks (many from California schools and backgrounds) who assisted him and the Court’s expanded workload. Politically controversial, Warren was an excellent judicial politician and had warm relations with his clerks, a friend who was one of them confirms to me. His treatment in this selection leaves the reader wishing for more about this transformational justice (whatever ones judgment about his positions).
The institution of Supreme Court clerks provides a special but revealing glimpse into the otherwise private world of the Supreme Court. By exploring a selection of this unique corps of lawyers, many who went on to influential careers, In Chambers adds an interesting peek at Court history at the highest level. By gathering these essays (and providing additional sources for those who want to know more), the authors add information about our least understood branch of government. Passing references are made to controversial incidents—Justice Black’s association with the Ku Klux Klan as a young man, Justice Rehnquist’s notorious memo to Justice Jackson endorsing Plessy v. Ferguson—but there are no headline–making stories here. In Chambers is a serious, scholarly look at the Court from the unique perspective of one of its special institutions.Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, D.C., attorney, author, and literary agent whose reviews appear regularly in Washington Lawyer. He can be reached at www.ronaldgoldfarb.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.