Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tana French (and is Benjamin Black actually John Banville when he's slumming?)


The question in my title is only half serious, and I've just started reading Christine Falls, the new crime novel written by John Banville under a transparent pseudonym. So I'll let you know what I think about that question after a while. In the meantime, there's another crime novel from Ireland that was preceded by p.r. and reviews that tout it as a "literary crime novel," so this post and the next will be related. All that p.r. and some of the reviews made French's novel sound like a dark, brooding Gothic thriller, which it isn't. It's for the most part a straightforward "policier" with one or two differences. First, the narrator, detective Rob Ryan, is a very chatty speaker, and his story moves forward with sly jokes, and a lot of silly banter with his partner, Cassie Maddox--the two are joined at the hip, soul mates one might think (but that relationship is ultimately a major factor in the plot). Rob's chatty manner takes the story over after a florid opening chapter (fortunately--I'm not sure I could have stuck with the overheated prose of the novel's beginning, which is much more Gothic than the body of the book). Rob even explains the quality of the prose in an offhand comment that he has a knack for imagery of the cheap flashy sort (as well as warning the reader that he, like all detectives, lies--a gesture toward the classic literary technique of the unreliable narrator, which remains part of the novel but not in a blatant fashion). The story itself is part of the reason that the book sounds so Gothic, when the story is outlined: Ryan is actually the sole survivor of a group of 3 children apparently attacked in a semi-rural wooded area 20 years previously. The other 2, his closest childhood friends, were never seen again. The return of this story, as gradually remembered by Ryan as well as given in references to the original case notes, does add a Gothic note at odds with the breezy narrative, and when the case at the core of the present-day narrative heats up, the 2 levels or tones of the book converge to some extent. The "current" story involves the body of a young girl discovered on a prehistoric, sacrificial stone in the middle of an archaeological dig that is hurrying its task in advance of road construction. The stone (and body) are in the same woods into which Ryan's friends disappeared. I have to admit that the setup was offputting to me at first. I've read a couple of crime stories set in Ireland with similar "Celtic" overtones, and they were mostly pretty bad (as well as mostly being by non-Irish writers). French's book fortunately concentrates on the procedural aspects of the investigation, along with the detectives' struggle against depression as the case moves forward without success over the course of a month. The archaeologists, the murdered girl's family, and local developers come under suspicion, but no evidence points clearly to any of them. Something is wrong in the girl's family, but Ryan and Maddox can't prove anything. And evidence and overtones of the story keep bringing back the 20-year old case (as well as Ryan's professional risk in not stepping off the case, in fact keeping secret his identity as the sole witness in the earlier case). The matter-of-fact quality of the present-day story, and the almost gossipy tone of the narrator keep the book grounded and fresh rather than overwrought, even when supernatural or magical elements drift past the tale, remaining well in the background. I have several problems with the book, but before getting to that I want to address a complaint made by several of the people who have posted reviews on Amazon--and this is a bit of a spoiler alert. The ending does not wrap up some of the threads of the tale, and that has confounded and annoyed some readers--if this is a mystery, why isn't everything tied up in a neat bundle at the end? And if this is not a mystery in that sense, is that because it's really a literary novel in disguise (or slumming as a detective story)? While there is a sophisticated structure underlying the book, I didn't get the sense that it was condescending to the genre. But Ryan's voice can get a little annoying, and the oblique clues to the unresolved parts of the story have a metaphysical tone that you have to take on whatever terms you are willing to do so--French does not tell you how far to go in accepting that aspect of the book at face value, or even how far she's willing to assert it. And the relationship of the 2 detectives, important as it is to the book, can be a little annoying--they're a bit cute together, until they stop being that, as the case moves into its final phase. Still, I liked the book much more than I anticipated, and followed it closely through a long-ish 400+ pages without it seeming too long. I'd appreciate hearing from others who've read this one--do you think it measures up as a crime novel? or does it seem pretentious in its literary ambitions? Questions I expect I'll have to return to in the next post, about Black/Banville.

5 comments:

David said...

What puzzles me a bit about the reviews of "In the Woods" is the absence of attention to the person at the novel's gravitational center (neither of the two detectives, at least in my view). This person (to remain unidentified, in order not to spoil things) seems to me one of the scariest, most dangerously sociopathic figures in recent fiction. How come what he/she manages to do to everyone around gets left aside in discussions of the book's other, extraordinary character portraits? (So yes, it has strong literary qualities as well as being a page-turner of a mystery.)

Glenn Harper said...

All the reviewers are tiptoeing around the psychopath you mention because to say anything at all is to spoil the mystery or the reading experience or however you would characterize the process of a crime story unveiling itself. Plus the psychopathic depth of this character's actions are only revealed at the end--part of the nature of a narrator embedded in the story (another aspect of the carefully constructed armature of the novel). So in a way, the surface level of the novel doesn't deal with that psycho, the reader can only ferret out that character between the lines, or retrospective see that character operating in the shadows of the novel. Maybe in that sense, that character is the emblem of the unsolved mystery and the metaphysical overtones--a novelistic metaphysics, to put a probably too grand name to it...

thanks,
Glenn

Anonymous said...

Dont you get it.....Ryan did the original murders and that is why he blocks out what happened....

Glenn Harper said...

Anonymous thinks that the novel is a puzzle to be solved, and that the answer is Ryan as the murderer in the old case (the murder of his 2 childhood friends). I think the novel is more than a puzzle, and the obvious possibility that Ryan murdered his friends is no more certain (or essential to the novel) than the other possibilities, criminal or metaphysical.

aonymous2 said...

I just finished it last night and it's left me depressed. Ryan's self imposed isolation and inability to understand his past or navigate his present hits close to emotional home. Gimme some JACK Ryan before I get too deep.