French, Tana. Faithful Place.

NY: Viking, 2010.

French has established herself as a first-rate author of mystery novels, all set in and around Dublin and reeking of Irishness, both past and present. But she has an odd way of picking her focus characters. The protagonist of her second novel was the second lead in her first book, and Frank Mackey, the POV character of this third novel was only a supporting character in her second. Perhaps it’s because each of these people has sort of used themselves up in the course of the story.

When Frank was nineteen, back in December 1985, living in a depressed working-class part of the city, he and the girl he loved, Rosie Daly from up the block, were planning to run away to England together. Rosie was the greatest catch in the neighborhood and Frank knew it, and they both were desperate to get away from their mostly dysfunctional families. They had their ferry tickets and their birth certificates and that was all you needed in those days. But Frank waited in the rain all through the appointed night and Rosie never showed up. He figured he’d been dumped. But since he already had the get-out-of-town momentum built up, he just went off by himself, living in a Dublin squat and doing casual labor until he decided to join the police. He kept searching the official databases for Rosie, assuming she was living and working in London by then, but he never found her. He eventually got married, and then divorced, and his daughter (now ten) keeps him going, but Frank is still very much a loner. And he’s never forgotten Rosie.

He never went back home, either, not even for a visit. His favorite sister, Jackie, keeps him updated on the family but he has no interest in seeing any of the rest of them ever again. And then one day, Rosie’s rotted suitcase is found stuffed up a chimney in the abandoned house where the neighborhood kids used to hang out, doing all the things their parents wouldn’t approve of. Jackie calls her brother and he comes and snoops around, hoping it isn’t what he dreads — but, of course, it is. Rosie didn’t abandon him and go off without him. She never made it off the block that December night. And one way or another, Frank is going to find out what happened and who’s responsible for taking all of Rosie’s life and most of his own. Moreover, that isn’t the only death of someone close to him that Frank Mackey will suffer.

In some ways, this can be a painful novel to read, as you discover what their earlier lives were like for Frank and all his now-grown siblings. Because only half the story is about Frank the cop trying to solve the multiple murders. The other half is about Frank the son trying to solve the multiple mysteries of his own family. And then, as you begin to suspect what really happened, working your way through this jungle, it all finally comes together.

In addition to the very strong portrayals of every character in the story, major and minor, and the twists and turns of a very adroit plotline, there is a great deal of just really good writing on practically every page. French wields the English language and the Irish idiom like a sword, cutting through the reader’s assumptions and unfounded expectations. Frank’s often drunken father and Rosie’s old man loathe each other, but “Ma and Mrs. Daly were on speaking terms, most of the time; women prefer to hate each other at close range, where you get more bang for your buck.” Or, after the second murder, “the Place had decided to welcome me back with open arms; I had apparently played enough of my cards right over the weekend, and a good slice of bereavement always helps, especially with a scandal-flavored topping.” Or, “I had spent my whole life growing around a scar shaped like Rosie Daly’s absence.” Now that’s writing.

This is French’s best work yet and I strongly recommend it.

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