Books

Family, privilege and malevolence make for the year’s best mystery to date

Tana French
Tana French Viking

“The Witch Elm” by Tana French. Viking, 528 pages.

Toby Hennessy, an art curator in Dublin, surprises burglars in his apartment and is badly beaten. His agonizing recovery and his skirmishes with the detectives could be a book in themselves, but a mention on page 2 of a skull hidden somewhere tells us there’s more to come. While he’s still far short of recovery, Toby’s relatives ask him to move into the family manse, Ivy House, with his beloved uncle who has been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor and can’t live alone any more.

Toby and his cousins grew up spending holidays in the house under Uncle Hugo’s benign eye while their parents ”drove around Hungary in camper vans or headed off around the Mediterranean on someone’s boat.” They are as close as siblings and the book is worth reading just for the easy interplay of the family and the charm of their ivy-covered refuge.

Then the skeleton comes to light and those carefree summers are suddenly the focus of a police investigation. What’s more, the lingering brain fog from Toby’s injuries makes him doubt his memories, and as he pieces together the events, he finds he never saw them the same way his cousins did.

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Tana French gives ample time and space to all parts of the story: Toby’s ordeal, the family dynamics, and the unfolding tale of malevolent privilege that eventually explains the skeleton.

“The Stranger Game” by Peter Gadol. Hanover Square Press, 304 pages.

A game of following random strangers, shared in a magazine article, becomes a worldwide cult and ends up getting people killed. (Go figure.)

Rebecca Crane starts playing the game as a way of connecting with her ex, Ezra, who has gone missing. She discovers a strange offshoot of the game where scenes are deliberately staged for unwitting players. A relationship with a fellow “follower” leads to new complications that draw police attention, and then things get truly weird.

Each “following” is a vignette in itself, adding irresistible color — you can understand how the game could be addictive. But there’s also a melancholy undercurrent about alienation. If you like James Sallis (I do) you’ll enjoy the philosophical asides.

“Under My Skin” by Lisa Unger. Park Row Books, 368 pages.

Lisa Unger draws you in from page one, eavesdropping as Poppy Lang sizes up an online date. As he chatters on, she reflects on the things you would never tell an online date over first drinks: that your husband was attacked and killed a year ago while out running, and that you had a nervous breakdown and lost several days of your life. Oh, and that you now think someone’s following you. (The date does not end well.)

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As Poppy tries to convince a sympathetic police detective that she’s being followed, her nightmares feel like clues to her lost days. She also has dreams where the morning went differently and her husband did not end up in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” The more she recalls, the more she doubts his death was random.

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