It’s a testament to the meticulous brilliance of Jorge Luis Borges that a summary of his story “The Garden of Forking Paths” might run longer than the story itself, and only fitting, given the narrative’s central question: How do you build an infinite labyrinth? It’s an even greater testament to Borges’s brilliance that the story, with deadpan audacity, provides an answer. One of the story’s characters writes a vast novel the irreconcilable narrative contradictions of which lead another character to conclude that “unlike Newton and Schopenhauer, [the novel’s author] did not believe in a uniform and absolute time; he believed in an infinite forking series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.” Any attempts to navigate this web will set the reader wandering an endless maze of temporal possibilities.
This endless maze could also describe the novels of Tana French, whose Dublin Murder Squad series charts labyrinthine paths as it navigates, not forking timelines, but interconnected webs of people. Her books find tension, terror, joy, and beauty in the conflicts and resonances that arise from the disparate voices and worldviews embodied by the novels’ police detective protagonists.
Each novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series follows a different detective, each of whom has been featured as a secondary character in a previous novel in the series (with the exception of the protagonist of the first novel). Fully capitalizing on the possibilities contained in this premise, French endows the protagonist with their own distinct voices, their own unique personal philosophies. Over the course of the series, these perspectives come into dynamic conversation with one another, building to an intriguing and ever-increasing clamor.
The series begins with In the Woods, which finds detective Rob Ryan investigating a gory murder at a controversial archaeological site. What Ryan conceals from his boss and the majority of his squad is that the murder may be linked to an unsolved crime from his own childhood. In on the secret is Ryan’s partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox, and as the narrative proceeds, it becomes clear that the novel is as interested in the relationships between its characters as it is in the sensational crime under investigation. Much of the story’s tension arises from the toll the case takes on the once-seemingly unbreakable friendship between Ryan and Maddox, the consequences of which reverberate into French’s next novel, The Likeness.
The second entry in the series features an entirely new mystery. (Although major payoffs exist for reading the series sequentially, each book also succeeds as a stand-alone novel.) The protagonist this time is Cassie Maddox, still reeling from the events of In the Woods, which are alluded to only vaguely. This time, in a premise that’s both improbable and delightful, Maddox investigates the murder of a woman who not only resembles her exactly, but has been living under a false identity that Maddox herself created when she was a detective in the undercover police unit. Maddox takes on the dead woman’s identity, embedding herself in the mini-commune of eccentric English grad students with whom the victim had been living. The uncanny doubling of the premise models a hallmark of the series: even though characters recur from one novel to the next, each new depiction presents minor variations as the first-person narrators present us with their distinctive take on both themselves and their colleagues. The first-person Cassie Maddox of The Likeness, then, reads as a slightly different character than the Cassie Maddox of In the Woods — more clever, more vulnerable, more complex.
Supervising Maddox on her investigation in The Likeness is her former boss from the undercover unit, Frank Mackey, a manipulative risk-taker who’s featured as the protagonist in the next entry in the series, Faithful Place. One advantage of the series’s premise is the way it allows French to (mostly) sidestep the implausibility endemic to other mystery series, where a single protagonist, in volume after volume, faces sensational mystery after sensational mystery, devastating personal crisis after devastating personal crisis. Although the characters of the Dublin Murder Squad series may be tangentially involved in many large crises, they only directly handle a once-in-a-lifetime case once in their fictional lifetime, when they are featured as a protagonist.
Frank Mackey’s great crisis comes when a badly decaying corpse discovered in the neighborhood where he grew up turns out to be the body of Rosie Daly, a young woman he had dated decades earlier. The two had planned to elope to England, but when Rosie didn’t show up for their rendezvous, Mackey assumed she had stood him up, an assumption that, in the ensuing years, shapes his fundamental philosophies. As the investigation of her murder unfolds, Mackey must also interrogate his deeply held views about his family and ultimately himself.
By this point in the series, a pattern emerges. Although the material circumstances of each mystery differ quite a bit, each novel features at its core a profound epistemological crisis. As detectives, the novels’ protagonists constantly face questions about what knowledge is and how to find it, and in response they’ve each developed a specific epistemological priority, whether it’s confidence in the power of memory, or in embodied experience, or in a knee-jerk distrust of the motives of others. And without fail, by the end of each book, the inadequacies of those beliefs have been laid bare by the troubling mysteries that they fail to fully resolve.
For the reader, that instability is multiplied over the course of the novels. The series, rather than supplying a unifying theory of knowledge to replace the discredited individual epistemologies, focuses instead on replicating for the reader the experience of uncertainty that arises when varied experiences and philosophies come into conversation and conflict with each other. As the characters and their accompanying worldviews interact throughout the series, they create a complex labyrinth of infinite possibilities.
Of course, such dizzying explorations of varied human experience are not unique to the Dublin Murder Squad novels. In his early 20th-century treatise Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin identified polyphony — the unresolved juxtaposition of diverse voices and perspectives — as a defining characteristic in the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, and others. It’s a compelling aesthetic model, one that encompasses a wide range of novels, from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. These novels, and others in the same mold, generate vertiginous thrills as they dramatize the difficulties of understanding ourselves, other people, and the world at large.
Over the past few years, several authors have riffed on that effect by incorporating elements of popular genre fiction into their works. Novels like Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird alternately embrace and subvert a whole host of popular genres, from family saga to airport thriller to ghost story to fairy tale to bildungsroman. As the novels veer from one type of narrative to the next, they create a polyphony of genre that constantly challenges the reader’s expectations and interpretive strategies.
Peter Rabinowitz, a narrative theorist, has an anecdote that nicely illustrates the relationship between genre and interpretation. In his Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation, Rabinowitz writes about an experience he had teaching Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train in one of his classes. The solution to the book’s mystery pleasantly surprised the majority of the class. Two students, though, said they had figured out the ending fairly early on. When Rabinowitz asked them how they had solved the mystery so quickly, they explained that in romance novels, two rivals usually compete for the protagonist’s affections, and most of the time, one rival turns out to be a scoundrel. Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train features a romantic plot at the center in which two different men woo the protagonist. The two students said that, based on the interpretive expectations they had developed reading romance novels, they were quickly able to figure out which romantic rival was the scoundrel and in this case the perpetrator of the crime. The other students, lacking the same reading experience, were unable to make the connection. Rabinowitz goes on to argue that a reader’s understanding of any given narrative grows out of a combination of previous reading experiences and signals from the text itself. Genre, then, provides a bundle of interpretive strategies, created between the author, the text, and the reader.
French utilizes this dynamic to great effect throughout her series. While the novels’ detective protagonists pick their way with varying success through a maze of vexing people and circumstances, readers navigates their own tangled maze of contradictory conventions as the narratives hop from genre to genre, toying with readers’ expectations.
Broken Harbor, the fourth entry in the series, is an ideal case in point. As with the other entries in the Dublin Murder Squad series, Broken Harbor initially presents itself as a mystery novel, more specifically, a police procedural. In this instance, Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy (previously encountered in Faithful Place in which he butts heads with Frank Mackey) investigates the murder of a young family in a nearly abandoned housing development.
At first, readers may feel secure reading the book as a straightforward police procedural, but soon elements of a haunted house novel emerge, as Kennedy finds the murdered husband’s account of a mysterious beast tormenting the family in the months leading up to their death. The evidence baffles Kennedy, who began the novel believing that good detection happens when “suspects and witnesses…believe you’re omniscient,” in other words, that even feigned possession of knowledge ultimately leads to valid knowledge. By the novel’s end, though, Kennedy has been rattled to the point that he warns his rookie partner that the human “mind is garbage…that will let you down at every worst moment there is.”
As Kennedy tries to make sense of the case, the reader tries to make sense of the novel itself — what kind of book will it turn out to be, and which interpretive genre strategies should be used? And of course, even when the mystery is solved, it feels like none of the genres at play quite explain what happened. This reader/detective parallel calls attention to the ways genre works as an epistemological model: it offers up specific strategies (both valid and not) for finding and processing the knowledge contained within a narrative.
The genre (and epistemological) play continues in The Secret Place, the fifth and latest entry in the series, which combines a boarding school drama with a cold-case mystery with a telekinetic coming-of-age story with a novel of manners. And the novel complicates things further by relying more heavily than previous entries on the series’s growing network of interconnected characters and their accompanying narrative baggage.
In that way, The Secret Place functions as a model of the whole series: read together on a macro level, all five books place the first-person protagonists and their accompanying worldviews into a polyphonic conversation with each other. The Secret Place recreates that dynamic on a micro level when, in a climactic interrogation scene, it places in the same room multiple characters whose wildly diverse minds the reader has been granted intimate access to: Frank Mackey (of Faithful Place), Holly Mackey (who features as secondary character in Faithful Place, and a main character in an alternating third-person omniscient narrative in The Secret Place), and Stephen Moran (also a minor character in Faithful Place, and the protagonist of The Secret Place), as well as Detective Antoinette Conway, the unknown quantity in the room. The drama arises less from what is revealed over the course of the interrogation, and more from the dynamic interplay of four savvy characters attempting to out-read and outsmart each other. Their epistemological models are put into urgent conversation with each other in a more frantic microcosm of the series as a whole.
For these purposes, Stephen Moran is the ideal protagonist. He places great stock in his ability to read other characters, describing his methods in great detail, which creates a narrative in which the reader spends a significant amount of time reading Moran reading the other characters. The climactic interrogation scene only enhances the effect: when an antagonistic Frank Mackey arrives, we have moments, for instance, in which the reader reads Moran reading Mackey reading Moran, with Moran then silently critiquing Mackey’s readings (as Moran imagines them). Here, for example, Moran resists the idea that Mackey understands him, noticing “him [Mackey] watching me, amused, the way he used to seven years back, big dog watching feisty puppy. Seven years is a long time.” In pointing out the time that’s passed since his first interactions with Mackey, Moran underscores yet another confounding factor in the epistemological maze that runs through French’s novels — that other people are moving targets, and in the time we take to try and comprehend them, they’ve already changed.
As Borges reminds us, not only in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” but, fittingly, again and again throughout his work, an endless pursuit is not necessarily a futile one; there’s beauty be found in the infinite. Tana French taps into such wonders in her perpetually challenging, perpetually engaging Dublin Murder Squad series.