Review by: Mark Palm
Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the violence of American society, but too often in thrillers, both in cinema and in books, writers feel that they can only transfix and hold our attention by a steady escalation in violence and an ever-higher body count. When characters are made of straw it’s all too easy to mow them down like such, and no-one pays any mind. In The Trespasser Tana French does the opposite, and reminds us, with depth and care, that one life has enormous meaning, and that one death can resonate with surprising circumstances and broad effect.
The Trespasser is set in the Dublin Murder Squad, and features Detective Antoinette Conway, for whom, like many police, feel that the Murder Squad is the peak of their profession. Conway is a woman in a man’s world, and as smart and aggressive as she is, her time in the Murder Squad has been nothing but an endless series of pranks, insults and harassment that makes her believe that any day may be her last. In this atmosphere Conway ends up as the lead on her first big case, along with her partner, Stephen Moran, and both are almost disappointed that the case seems like a simple domestic dispute gone wrong. A young woman named Aislinn Murray is found dead in her home, seemingly from a blow to the head. A dinner for two is set on the table, and she appeared to have a date with a bookstore owner named Rory Fallon. On the surface it seems simple, but one after another of the obvious hypotheses falls apart. Other members of the squad, especially the menacing Breslin, seem unusually eager to nail Fallon, and the victim, Aislinn, is familiar to Conway, but the detective cannot remember from where. Once she digs into her past Conway finds an iron will masked beneath an almost cliched version of femininity.
This depth is one of Ms. French’s greatest strengths. It’s not that difficult for a skilled plotter to create twists and turns, but it takes an expert to make them both surprising and inevitable, and here the author does it again and again. Just when I thought I could see where things were going a small turn would catch me unawares; such as the similarities between Conway’s past and Aislinn’s. At first the two women really seem as different as night and day, but the eventual parallels between them rise from circumstance naturally, with nuance and care, and never once feels forced or fake.
Character is another place where Ms. French shines. All of the characters have depth and insight, but also a certain distance that Ms. French uses to keep us on our heels. Even Conway, who narrates the book, and whose point of view informs us, remains a bit of a mystery. The parts of Conway that we do see , and her first-person voice ,help bring a brisk and unstinting energy to the book. The detective’s voice seems unstudied and casual, but Ms. French wrings great nuance from it. I found it particularly effective when read aloud, a test that many novels do not pass.
Brash, fearless, and smart, Conway brings an exuberance to the process of being a cop, particularly during the interrogation scenes, that make us feel for her plight without ever making us feel pity for the way her squad treats her. It seems shameful enough to deprive someone who does her job with as much passion as Conway that Ms. French can keep her as abrasive as she wants, and made Conway even more real than ever. That kind of forthright intelligence kept me from making any assumptions about where this book was headed,until the very end, which as I said earlier , is both surprising, and in a way, inevitable. That is about all you can ask from a thriller, and The Trespasser delivers.