Book Review: Faithful Place by Tana French

“In my neighborhood, gossip is a competitive sport that’s been raised to Olympic standard, and I never diss gossip; I revere it with all my heart.”

This is the third of the Dublin Murder Squad books by Tana French (though it concerns a man on the Undercovers, as opposed to Murder) – a series of books that builds one from the other, not on events, but rather on characters. Our main character in this story is Frank Mackey – he was introduced in previous book ( The Likeness) as that protagonist’s former boss  who has now spun off his own story, less mystical than the two preceding stories in the series, but no less soul-wrenching.

It took me just over four days to read it. I was enthralled.

Synopsis:

Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was nineteen, growing up poor in Dublin’s inner city, and living crammed into a small flat with his family on Faithful Place. But he had his sights set on a lot more. He and Rosie Daly were all ready to run away to London together, get married, get good jobs, break away from factory work and poverty and their old lives.

But on the winter night when they were supposed to leave, Rosie didn’t show. Frank took it for granted that she’d dumped him-probably because of his alcoholic father, nutcase mother, and generally dysfunctional family. He never went home again.

Neither did Rosie. Everyone thought she had gone to England on her own and was over there living a shiny new life. Then, twenty-two years later, Rosie’s suitcase shows up behind a fireplace in a derelict house on Faithful Place, and Frank is going home whether he likes it or not.

Getting sucked in is a lot easier than getting out again. Frank finds himself straight back in the dark tangle of relationships he left behind. The cops working the case want him out of the way, in case loyalty to his family and community makes him a liability. Faithful Place wants him out because he’s a detective now, and the Place has never liked cops. Frank just wants to find out what happened to Rosie Daly-and he’s willing to do whatever it takes, to himself or anyone else, to get the job done.

As I said before: this book is different from the two that came before it. Where In the Woods had an ethereal quality that centered on the lost memories of a child-turned-man and The Likeness focused on the identity questions that arose when the main character assumed the life of her own double, the plot of Faithful Place rings somewhat more ordinary. I recommend reading them all – and you’re probably better to read them in order (at the very least, read 1 then 2, and 3 before 4. Reading 3 and 4 before 1 and 2, maybe not so much of a matter) – and slowly. There is a lot of life in them, even though the plot sometimes moves at a glacial pace. Something which I didn’t really realize until the end of The Likeness. Above anything else – Tana French has that unique ability to bring her world to life for you.

In the case of this book, it’s a low-class, poor neighbourhood with all the fixings: children who run about wild, drunks who talk with their fists, old lady gossips who hang by their windows watching the coming and goings – buildings that are falling apart, or always in a state of disrepair, with little cracked gardens overgrown with spindly weeds or decaying bricks. Long summer nights of play, of being crammed into a bed with your siblings and listening to their heartbeats, or sneaking off below the moon to meet with your lover. It’s all of that and more. It’s like taking a rock and flipping it over to expose all the dirt and bugs to the light, and then again, flipping it over to see the smooth surface of the rock once again. Tana French reaches into the old neighbourhood, shakes it about and drops some of its secrets onto the pavement, then turns it back around and puts it back in its own place, where it stays as a sort of monument to the beginning of the story.

To say that I liked Faithful Place would be true – though not so much for its conclusion, as it is for the whole of the story itself. I mentioned in my review of the first book in the series that the ending left me slightly annoyed – that the killer was more–or-less easy to discover, and the true mystery escaped me, leaving me annoyed and still – months later – mulling it over. After I read The Likeness (which I really will review one day!), I realized something profound – the ending, the killer in these murder mysteries, is a secondary concern. Rather, Tana French’s stories are concerned with the development of their primary characters, as opposed to solving any long-standing mystery. And so, this book, like the two that came before it, lets you in on the identity of the killer long before conventional mysteries or thrillers. Because there is an aftermath to share – the aftermath where our main character must navigate this new information and figure out where in the world that leaves them, and how – if – they can get back to some normalcy.

Not that normalcy is something Frank Mackey strives for exactly.

Our main character in this case is a cynical, forty-something divorcee with a little girl too bright for his own good, a job that appeals to him (as it pits his mind games against others) and the type of blase attitude that is sure to land a lesser man in real trouble. He’s undercover, he’s got an attitude and every time one of his family members say “Jaysus.” I can just see him grinning like a cat. We gathered from The Likeness that he’s a force to be reckoned with – he will whirl through a crime scene, anger those witnesses he wants to rattle, console those witnesses he wants to turn to him, and generally take control of all matters, despite the red tape. That of course, is from Cassie Maddox’s perspective, and to open up in Faithful Place inside of Frank’s own head, is another things entirely. You don’t get the whirlwind – you get that slow, methodological approach to acting, the thought processes he engages in as he assesses all the players. It’s a thing of beauty.

The best of Frank, however, is Frank as he’s realizing that there is a lot more to his own past than he’d really thought, and that perhaps the notions he’d held so close to him for so long, aren’t as black and white as he’d thought.

French has an uncanny ability at that – to start off with an already broken character whose life revolves around some thing – some long ago incident that relegates his movements in the present. And the only certainty that this character has is the certainty that the long-ago-thing does not affect them at all. And then she will shift that character’s focus, force them out of their hidey hole and into the glaring light, and that character must accept the fact that the long-ago-thing happened, and in such a way that the aftermath, those pesky consequences, need to be addressed. In the end, you have a more complete character – a character who has been to hell and back, their own personal hell anyway – but still broken. Only this time, they’re broken not because of their own ignorance, but rather at the glaring truth of their own self discovery. Again, this is a thing it took me a while to appreciate, but as I go over and over the events of the first two books and those two protagonists, I come to realize just how deep French goes into the brains of her characters in order to extract the meat out of them.

And of course, a good author wouldn’t take all that time into crafting one well developed character and a very well developed world only to populate the rest of the story with caricatures and tropes. What I mean is this – even when French uses a trope, say like the rotund, gossiping, guilt-laddening Catholic mother of five, she confronts it – pushes into the trope to see the woman beneath, so that as a Reader, you will begin to see the trope fall away and a true character emerge. Over and over, French takes characters that are so often reduced to their specific trope and forces them outside of the box, into a new light and new reading, giving us a much more richly complicated world.

Something which is sorely needed, thinks I, in the vast majority of entertainment.

A few notes on the plot, without any spoilers.

The returning home storyline is always a little tough to pull off: whenever a character is put into the land of their youth a writer must balance the nostalgia of the past with the realism of the present without the character seeming too bitter or too useless. French does a good job with this, even though sometimes Frank’s memory becomes a little laden full of poetry when thinking of his past lady love. I think, in part, the memories of Rosie are so rosey (tee hee) because of the contrast it makes with the rest of his memories of Faithful Place. On the other hand, I also think that Frank recognizes his own tendency to see Rosie as at once more and less of what she was.

The storyline, too, is jarring but wonderfully balanced – a long ago murder with possible consequences that reach into the present and knock about heads, and all. Even though it is a foreseeable ending in some ways – who the killer is, why they killed her, etc – it’s not simple in the least. The starting point becomes the killer’s identity and the story flows from there, even though you don’t realize that until you get to the end. It’s a pretty tight storyline – the events of the book make you consider each person in a new light – even Frank’s motives are questioned. And it keeps pace with you – still slow as with French’s other works, but a slow that seems even more thought out than the previous book.

All in all, it is a really well-written, thought-provoking story with a breadth of realism that makes you shiver. Frank Mackey is a delight to read – even when he’s being obtuse, and the ending leaves you waiting for the next one.

It helps that the next book’s main character is Scorcher, Frank’s old police academy nemesis.

 

Happy Reading!

AmmyB

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