BOOK REVIEW: The Witch Elm, where faulty memories make it difficult to solve a mystery

French, Tana - The Witch Elm KThe Witch Elm
Tana French

I am a huge fan of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, so was thrilled when she released a new book, even though it was stand-alone. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy it as much as I’d hoped.

Life has always been charmed for Toby Hennessey, a PR manager for a small but exclusive Dublin art gallery. If he finds himself in a difficult position–which he rarely does–he is able to talk himself out of it, making friends in the process. But then came “that night.” After celebrating with his friends Sean and Dec at the pub for once again turning a bad situation around, this time at work, Toby walks home drunk. In the middle of the night, he heard noises and when he went to his living room to see what was going on, he found two burglars carrying out his expensive electronics. Instead of leaving, they beat him so badly he nearly died from the brain trauma. In addition to the memory loss, personality changes, and impaired cognitive ability, Toby suffered physical effects such a limp and loss of strength. For the first time, life wasn’t charmed. Toby knew fear, not just fear regarding his personal safety but fear that he might never be the person he was before the accident.

When his cousin Susanna calls to tell him their Uncle Hugo is ill and suggests Toby stay at the family’s Ivy House with him, Toby doesn’t give it any thought: he’s in no condition to take care of himself, much less another person. But his girlfriend Melissa convinces him he will regret it if he doesn’t spend time with Uncle Hugo while he can. Melissa, who is really so good and sweet that she’s an absolute bore as a character, agrees to go with him. The three of them quickly establish a set of comfortable routines, with Toby helping Hugo with his genealogical research while Melissa spends the day at the retail shop she manages. Flitting through Ivy House are the uncles, Hugo’s brothers, their wives, and the cousins, Susanna, plus her husband and kids, and Leon. Toby spends much of his energy presenting a front to convince his family that he is the same as he ever was.

All their lives are disrupted, though, when Susanna’s son Zach finds a human skull in the majestic wych elm in the garden. The family hoped that the skull was possibly from the civil war, certainly from before they moved to Ivy House, but forensics tests showed that the body was there no longer than fifteen years, dating the death to around the cousins’ final year in school. When the police identify the body as Dominic Ganly, one of the cousins’ classmates, Toby realizes they aren’t just peripheral to the case: they are a part of it. He is desperate to know what happened, but his faulty memories present a clear impediment, and his narration becomes even more unreliable when it’s clear that his flawed memory likely predates his brain injury. He trusts no one, not even himself, as his tries to uncover the truth of the mystery before the police do in an effort to protect himself and his family.

For much of the novel, Toby is my least favorite character, which is funny to me since he is supposed to be so charming. Perhaps he was wildly mistaken about his personality or perhaps it was the result of the brain injury, but in any case, I did not enjoy being in his head for five hundred plus pages. Not many of the characters are likable, though, not even (especially not) Susanna’s children. And I found myself not even questioning the legitimacy of Dominic’s death as his behaviors were uncovered, something that greatly disturbed me!

The fulcrum of the novel, the uncovering of the skull in the garden, didn’t happen until about a third of the way into the narrative. Much of the book before that moment could have been edited for a tighter and I think more effective plot. After that point, nothing seems certain, which would accurately reflect Toby’s experience, though I wonder if he’d have had less paranoia if he’s smoked less pot.

We learn, with Toby, the truth about Dominic’s death, through a long explanation delivered by another character. The Trespasser also ended in such a way, and I didn’t like it then, either. I think mystery novels should be resolved more through action than exposition.

At the same time, the book seems to present a realistic portrait of brain injury and the strains it puts on the patient and his or her family (as well as the devastation of being a crime victim). Through the lens of the brain injury and Toby’s unstable identity, French questions identity and memory in general, and these themes along with her excellent writing redeem the novel to some extent.

The UK edition has a different title, The Wych Elm, as well as a different cover. This is a rare case in which I prefer the US cover design, though I’m not sure why “wych” had to be dumbed down for us.

French, Tana - The Witch Elm UK


BOOK REVIEW: A Bone to Pick

Liegh, Melina - A Bone to Pick

A Bone to Pick
by Melinda Leigh

A Bone to Pick is a quick, fun read, perfect when you need an easy, gripping mystery story for entertainment. Deputy Tessa Black responds to an evening call from Mrs. Driver who heard a blood curdling scream. With the other two deputies otherwise occupied, Tessa enlists the help of park ranger Logan Wild. Together, they find the body of artist and newcomer Dante Moreno harpooned against a warning sign on beach within the state park. Searching Dante’s house, they found $100,000 in cash–and a stash of portraits of nude women. With the limited resources of a small town and distracted by her mother’s Alzheimer’s and her caretaking responsibilities, Tessa must figure out who killed Dante before anyone else–including herself–is put at risk.

Set on Widow’s Island, an isolated community in the Pacific Northwest, the novella is populated with quirky characters like Jerry, the aging hippy and owner of the local head shop, and Herb Lawson who played the oboe at the local bar every Thursday night. One of my favorite aspects was the Widow’s Knitting and Activist group led by Logan’s grandmother, Jane Sutton. Not only did the group know everything happening on the island and manage to solve most problems, they were the driving force for good in the community.

The Pacific Northwest offers a beautiful setting, and the isolation of the island heightens the suspense. The possible role of the nude portraits as a motive for the killing was an unusual and interesting touch. Additionally, the book emphasized the necessity of interconnection among residents when living in a rather hostile environment.

While I liked the mystery element, I wasn’t thrilled when it ended by having Tessa wrap up the loose ends through a recap provided to her friend, FBI agent Cate Wild, Logan’s sister. The romance subplot also rang a little hollow. Although the second in a series of novellas, I had not read the first and had no trouble understanding the characters or plot. However, I enjoyed A Bone to Pick enough that I preordered Close to the Bone, the first novella in the series, and will probably read #3 and 4, too.

Thank you to Netgalley and Montlake Romance for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: A Taste for Death, a flawed mystery set in the Finger Lakes

Stevens, Don - A Taste for DeathMy husband, George, is a winemaker in the Finger Lakes region, at a winery on the east side of Seneca Lake, across the lake from where this book takes place. Reading a book about our area and about the industry in which my husband works appealed to me, and it was fun to see the local small towns mentioned. While not everything about the wine industry was accurate, it does show readers a little of what goes on before the wine is poured into a glass. (Though, knowing what it takes to become a winemaker, I do quibble with the fact that there are so many inexperienced winemakers in the novel.)

In A Taste for Death, Gerard Bellamont, a prominent wine critic is murdered with a trellis wire; his body is found in the vineyard of a newly opened winery. Inspector Louis Deville of the Violent Crimes Investigative Team is assigned as lead on the case. Deville came to the United States from France with a so far incurable case of amnesia due to alcohol poisoning and can’t partake of the wine that is so ubiquitous in the region, though perhaps that gives him a clear head to untangle the vined motives and relationships around Gerard since he was even better at offending people than he was writing, and he left a long trail of enemies.

Though the setting is enjoyable, otherwise, the book is a bit of a mess and would have benefited from a strong editor. There are several typos (though this may be limited to the Kindle edition) and incorrect word usage. More seriously, the text contains grammatical and stylistic errors and is littered with cliches. Additionally, the writing can be amateurish as well as confusing and unclear. At times, it read as a poor translation into English. Furthermore, the narrative is inconsistent, especially when it comes to character traits. Characters are confident then falling apart on the turn on dime; characters are imbeciles but are hardworking and good at what they do. Sadly, I must recommend skipping this book.

BOOK REVIEW: Ghosted, a Satisfying Diversion

Walsh, Rosie - Ghosted

by Rosie Walsh

Recently separated Sarah Mackey traveled to the UK for an annual June pilgrimage. Though she grew up there, she’s now living in California running a charity called Clowndoctor. Unexpectedly, she meets Eddie David, and the two spend an intense week together clouded only by the knowledge that Eddie is leaving for a holiday in Spain and Sarah for a trip to London. Yet, they know their relationship is special and make plans to see each other when they each return. But Sarah doesn’t hear from Eddie. She’s been ghosted.

Sarah’s desperate attempts to reach Eddie though social media are difficult to read, though I’m not sure I would be much different! Though her friends advise her to forget about him and move on, she can’t bear to let go. Her work suffers and her relationships are strained.

But there might be more to Eddie’s silence than a simple loss of interest. It turns out that both he and Sarah harbor secrets from their pasts that echo into the present day.

When I started this book, I thought mystery > romance. Instead, mystery < romance. It wasn’t really my style, but the book was a quick read with a satisfying ending. Certainly, the possibilities and horrors that social media brings to dating come through in the book. Secondary characters, one with infertility struggles and one with mental health issues, were more interesting to me than the main characters. One particularly device was deliberately manipulative and too gimmicky to be entirely effective.

Still, this is a good choice for an “airplane book” since it is engrossing and well-written.

Author’s Website

Book Review: The 7-1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is Both Derivative and Completely Original

Turton, Stuart -The 7-1-2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (2)The 7-1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Stuart Turton

The 7-1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is both derivative and completely original. Drawing on devices seen in Quantum Leap, Doctor Who, and Groundhog Day, and reflective of 1920s English estate mysteries such as those by Agatha Christie, Stuart Turton combines existing conventions into a surprising and strange mystery.

Our narrator, who we later learn is Aiden Bishop, wakes up in a forest in a body he doesn’t recognize as his own. He sees a young woman being chased by a man and slightly hesitates before following. When he hears a gunshot, he is overcome with guilt at the possibility his fear caused a woman’s death. A mysterious and ominous figure puts a heavy object, a compass, in his pocket and whispers “East” in his ear.

Returning to Blackheath, a once grand but now decrepit mansion, Aiden learns that trying to get the other occupants of Blackheath to believe he saw a murder is the least of his problems. A man in a plague doctor costume tells him the rules of the “game.” A woman is to be killed that night, and he must solve the murder by 11:00 p.m. If he does not solve the mystery, he is conveyed into another host body, for a total of eight hosts; without a resolution, the loop begins again. What’s more, a sadistic Footman is stalking him, and he has competition to solve the mystery.

As Aiden navigates the loop through his host bodies, the book offers up a compelling mysteries on multiple levels. While the basic question is who kills Evelyn Hardcastle, the reader is also caught up in who the Footman is, who the competition is, and who is behind the “game.” At the same time, Aiden confronts deeper themes: how can one overcome the limitations of the body, how fluid is identity, and how absolute is fate?

The plot is carefully constructed–I’m sure I missed details, though I tried hard to pay attention!–and the book is clever and well-written. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t my style of writing. It definitely reflected the style of the mystery novels from which it draws inspiration. At the same time, I’m glad I read it, and I think it will reward readers who like new and innovative ways to approach storytelling.