By Maureen Corrigan
Monday, August 9, 2010; C01
By Tana French
Viking. 400 pp. $25.95
The voice is what grabs you first. It belongs to our narrator, Frank Mackey, a police detective in Dublin. Here's Frank assessing the guy his ex-wife is currently dating: "[Dermot] can't help looking like he lives life on the edge of a massive belch." Or, succinctly describing the slum neighborhood he was raised in as a "hive of old brick and lace curtains and watching eyes." Or, recalling the basis of the bad blood between his parents and those of his long-ago girlfriend: "My parents didn't like people with Notions; the Dalys didn't like unemployed alcoholic wasters." Frank's voice is so wry, bitter and just plain alive that when I finished "Faithful Place" and began writing this review, I had to think for a long blank minute about the name of the author. To do that, I first had to remember that Frank was created, not real.
My naive lapse was a tribute to Tana French's extraordinary gifts, and her name should be writ large on every mystery lover's must-read list. Her first novel, "In the Woods," swept up the Edgar, Barry, Macavity and Anthony awards. "Faithful Place" is the third installment in her ongoing saga about the Dublin Murder Squad, and it's breathtaking -- an elaborately twisted ballad of class resentments, family burdens, regret and passion. The story alternates between the depressed Ireland of the 1980s and the depressed Ireland of the present day, which means that the country's all-too-brief era of prosperity has been skipped over altogether. Not that the Celtic Tiger ever prowled much in the inner city environs of Faithful Place, the street on which Frank grew up.
Though his beat is in Dublin, Frank has resolutely kept his distance from Faithful Place for all his adult life. Too many nasty memories, too many jeering choruses of the Irish version of the Bronx cheer: "Who do you think you are?" But his siblings -- two sisters and two brothers -- still visit his drunken father and grim mother. As Frank explains: "All four of the others still put themselves through the weekly nightmare: Sunday evening with Mammy and Daddy, roast beef and tricolored ice cream and it's all fun and games until somebody loses their mind." Frank knows about the ritual because he's in sporadic touch with his sister Jackie, who calls one evening with news that upends his world: Builders have been gutting a derelict tenement on Faithful Place in order to sell the old fireplaces and moldings. They've found a decayed suitcase, stuck inside an upstairs fireplace. Soon after, a corpse is unearthed in the tenement's basement and identified as Rosie Daly, Frank's teenaged love.
Twenty-two years before, Frank and Rosie were supposed to run away to London and get married. Except Rosie never showed up the night of their elopement and Frank always assumed she'd had second thoughts and escaped from Faithful Place without him. Now, he realizes, she never made the break at all.
Like every serious mystery that's read its Freud, "Faithful Place" is suffused with an awareness of the stranglehold the past has on the present. To solve Rosie's murder, Frank must re-enter the maze of Faithful Place and ingratiate himself with family and friends he thought he'd exorcised long ago. (Given that Frank is a cop, the lack of enthusiasm about the reunion is general.) Here's Frank's merciless description of one old mate that should give all you female high school and college reunion-goers pause: "Not one of those twenty-two years had been nice to Imelda. . . . These days she was what the boys on the squad call a BOBFOC: body off Baywatch, face off Crimewatch. She had kept her figure, but there were pouches under her eyes and her face was covered in wrinkles like knife scars."
More dizzying than the journey through the landscape of the past is Frank's psychological trip back into the intense feelings of his youth. Not only does the author write beautifully about Frank's adolescent yearnings for Rosie, but French also vividly summons up the ego-stomping suffocation that Frank feels even now in the presence of his family:
"My ma is your classic Dublin mammy: five foot nothing of curler-haired, barrel-shaped don't-mess-with-this, fueled by an endless supply of disapproval. The prodigal son's welcome went like this:
" 'Francis,' Ma said. . . . 'Could you not be bothered putting on a decent shirt, even?' "
By its devastating end, "Faithful Place" affirms the wisdom of Thomas Wolfe's much quoted adage, "You can't go home again." But, brilliantly, it also affirms the dark knowledge of every great noir mystery: "You can't escape home, either."
Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air."