"The case comes in, or anyway it comes in to us, on a frozen dawn in the kind of closed-down January that makes you think the sun’s never going to drag itself back above the horizon. Me and my partner are finishing up another night shift, the kind I used to think wouldn’t exist on the Murder Squad: a massive scoop of boring and a bigger one of stupid, topped off with an avalanche of paperwork.”
Like that voice? Want to know what else that voice has to say?
I did, too, which is why I plowed through The Trespasser by Tana French in a matter of days. French’s latest entry in her "Dublin Murder Squad" series once again dials up the psychological tension while drenching each character in moral ambiguity.
Heroes and villains are nonexistent in her novels; everyone is guilty of something. Often, many things.
One of the Murder Squad detectives, Antoinette Conway, recounts the investigation of the death of a young, attractive woman. At first glance, this woman, Aislinn Murray, seems to have been left for dead by her nervous boyfriend, a timid man who owns a cash-strapped bookstore and professes his innocence despite evidence to the contrary.
Conway and her partner, Steve Moran, figure they wound up with the case because it’s a straightforward domestic spat requiring nothing more than rote questioning and an arrest. How that straightforward assignment twists into an event that scars the entire Murder Squad is what French spends the rest of the novel revealing, parceling out details in just the right amounts.
French’s mysteries are really character studies and they’re anything but cozy. (Miss Marple would hyperventilate within five minutes of meeting Antoinette Conway.) The author digs and peels and scrapes at raw wounds, finding the vulnerabilities of almost everyone before her tale is told.
Though her books can be enjoyed as stand-alones, they reward the constant reader. Moran, for example, narrated French’s previous book, “The Secret Place.” In that novel, a harrowing dive into adolescent angst and cruelty, Moran helped Conway with a cold-case investigation and introduced her as a detective without friends or allies in the Murder Squad.
Conway, who isn’t just a woman in the clubby detectives’ world but also a minority, reinforces that observation – and then some. Her co-workers have, among other unwanted surprises, wiped her computer clean, spread rumors about her drinking habits and sex life and sabotaged some of her investigations. All of this exacerbates Conway’s considerable bitterness and wounded psyche, testing the resilience of Moran, who tries to maintain diplomacy on all sides.
Conway stomps through life looking for slights, even in the few places where none exist, and never comes away disappointed.
To wit: “A clot of tourists wander past with their heads tipped back and their jaws hanging, staring up at the Castle buildings. One of them points a camera in my direction, but I throw him a stare that almost melts his lens, and he backs off.”
Welcome to Dublin and enjoy your visit.
Rivalries and subterfuge smother Conway and Moran in their investigation as relentlessly as the dreary Dublin winter siphons every last drop of optimism. There is no black and white, just an endless gray enveloping everyone and everything.
Is the popular veteran detective, a smooth-talker named Breslin, lending backup support to help Conway and Moran or is he setting them up to fail? And why does the head of the Murder Squad want daily updates on a ho-hum case that no one else would even give a second glance?
While sorting out those questions, and with the backdrop of messy personal lives fraught with still more secrets that may or may not bleed into the investigation, the detectives sort through unreliable persons of interest, including the victim’s best friend. Everyone nips and tucks their account of their relationship with the victim, who she really was and how she could have wound up murdered while making a romantic dinner for two on a Saturday night.
Without breaking a sweat – then again, how could she in rainy, wintry Dublin? – French pulls her narrative threads tighter and tighter. In a dizzying, claustrophobic finale that manages to turn a small staff meeting into a nerve-wracking event, “The Trespasser” comes to a conclusion that satisfies because of its melancholy lack of finality.