After watching various crime and cop shows like Elementary, Psych, X-Files, and NCIS and reading Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie narratives, the formulas and patterns of mystery become impossible not to notice. Stories usually start with a character seeking investigative expertise of the detective; stories start with travel to a new setting where a murder is revealed following the detective’s brief lounging with the mystery’s central characters. There’s always a problem that needs solving, usually done through witness-questioning and clue-searching. Once you have a handle on these patterns, finding ways in which authors subvert these patterns is all the more fascinating. I began thinking that I would apply this philosophy to the newly released standalone novel by Tana French entitled The Witch Elm. I wanted to see if French crossed the boundaries of the typical mystery or if she stayed within its lines.
Seventy pages into my reading, it was hard to tell where the narrative was going. It begins with main character and narrator Toby believing himself to be extremely lucky in life. And he is; Toby has a stellar job, a stellar girlfriend, a stellar apartment, a BMW, a generous amount of persuasive and deceptive charm. All of his luck turns around when two men break into his apartment, beat him up to pulp-consistency, and steal material items such as his TV, car, laptop. Toby then spends a great deal of time in the hospital recovering from the near-death experience, coming to terms with the new man he’s become—a man who now possesses a droopy left eyelid, a limp and drag in his step, a nerve-damaged hand, and a fear never known before. French doesn’t begin the story with a character seeking detective help or an immediate visit to a new setting. Instead French crafts a lengthy exposition that explores Toby’s psyche and identity crisis, explores an identity where he is not privileged in ableness, charm, luck, and good looks, explores Toby’s desire to return to his former self. These small adventures get the reader pondering exactly how French will pivot the story and propel it forward.
We begin to see more formulaic elements of mystery—a character’s travel to a new mysterious location—when Toby’s yearning for his past health and mindfulness is eventually reproduced in a stay at the Ivy House (a family home) where he cares for his uncle Hugo who’s been newly diagnosed with untreatable cancer. The Ivy House rekindles Toby’s relationship with the past as he often laments youthful times spent in the flourishing garden sitting on the thick branches of the wych elm tree with his cousins Leon and Susanna. Toby uses the house as a comfortable constant, a departure from the reality of his new form and fearful nature that life in his apartment—the scene of the attack—could not provide.
The Ivy House is mystically spoken of, as if the entire setting is an illusion, a “fairy tale” (French 121). During time spent with Hugo doing genealogy research, a task Toby often did as a child, he enters a meditative state. French writes, “In my spaced-out state, my mind couldn’t manage to snag on my problems of Hugo’s, or on anything really except the lines of type appearing like magic above the moving edge of the phone bill: Mr. Robt Harding 22 M Gent England…The rhythm, once I found it, was hypnotic: three lines of the list, eyes swinging right to remind myself of the names I wanted, left again to the list for three more line, tick tock tick tock, steady and solid as a pendulum” (French 130).
Consistency is disrupted when a skull is found in the wych elm tree in the fantastical garden. Investigators are called. The police become involved. Ivy House is splattered over the news. The garden dug up—gutted—for human remains; most of the remains found hidden in the hole of tree, an arm bone beneath the garden’s plants (because bone marrow is the secret ingredient for any rose bed’s growth). The wych elm is cut down. Along with Toby, we break out of the spell. We realize the reminiscent, playful, and hypnotic place that was once the Ivy House and its garden, has taken a sinister change.
French‘s exposition becomes a fake out. You believe there will be an extensive look into the burglary of Toby’s home, however French puts that plot to rest for a few magical chapters in the Ivy House. You then believe the mystery may derive from the genealogy investigation that Hugo and Toby partake in as they search for answers of a woman’s ancestry. No, the reader is taken by surprise when the story turns grim and the murder mystery begins upon revelation of the skull, revelation that a murderer is among characters we never thought capable of such crimes. French also takes strays from formula by introducing the suspects to readers before Toby arrives at the Ivy House. In standard mysteries, detectives and the readers discover the pool of suspects with introduction of a new setting or the crime scene. However, we meet all the potential suspects before arriving at the Ivy House. French gives readers time to understand these characters before surprising readers with the realization that one of them is to blame.
This narrative also warps the standard formula since we are reading from the perspective of an unreliable narrator instead of a well-read or personable sleuth. I often had Girl on the Train flashbacks whenever Toby popped another Xanax, drank alcohol, or had moments where his memory faulted. The attack in his apartment rendered his memory almost useless. Past events and vocabulary are lost to Toby under stressful situations. He was often forgetful and unfocused when detectives questioned him about the victim: “’He was I guess really confident? Out, out—’ Outgoing, I meant, couldn’t find it— ‘Always on for a laugh or, you know, action, like party or whatever…’ The rhythm of this was getting to me, no let up, every answer seized and turned straight into a new question; like being back in the hospital, trapped in my bed…” (French 208). By making Toby an unreliable narrator, the readers aren’t able to confirm Toby’s innocence. And as we learn more about the murdered party—a teen named Dominic with startling similarities to Toby and who used to hang in social circles with Toby, Leon, and Susanna during high school—we begin question the length of everyone’s involvement, their testimonies, their motivations, their secrets.
One aspect of The Witch Elm that maintained my engagement was how many of the characters, sans the detectives, had no real motivation or desire to uncover the truth. They found the investigation invasive, especially in relation to Hugo and his illness. They wanted the investigators gone instead of the case solved. They took a passive approach to the investigation instead of searching for answers themselves. In the beginning of the investigation, Toby attempts to convince the reader that the detectives are a bother, a threat. We end up finding ourselves in the perspective of truth inhibitors rather than truth seekers.
This passive stance changes for Toby when clues and information uncovered by detectives keep leading them back to Toby. With a new motivation of escaping jail time and murder charges, Toby takes a proactive approach and begins searching for answers himself. He advantageously uses his memory loss to get family members and friends to fill in the blank spots of his recollections. He slowly acquires his previous manipulative charm and becomes more strategic and thoughtful in his interactions with detectives. In regards to his cousin Leon and the victim, Dominic, Toby uncovers high school secrets about the two characters that escaped his awareness. Through his own investigations, Toby challenges his view of the world as family and friends reveal secrets and struggles that Toby had been oblivious to and was lucky to never have experienced himself.
The Witch Elm is a meditation on how those living comfortably navigate the tides of change. French investigates ideas of change while also applying change to formulas and patterns of detective fiction. There are so many examples of contrast between consistency and change as the story unfolds at Ivy House. Toby’s challenges following his attack becomes a test, his own personal reckoning. The mystery’s exposition is lengthy however French introduces complex characters and blends between past and present, fantasy and reality, that push the reader forward in search of the truth. And if you’re living comfortably, these characters call you to ponder your own luck, to ponder when your own tide of change will arrive and sweep you under. You question whether you would maintain your identity, evolve, or become hindered and defined by your reckoning.