A Killed B: The Millions Interviews Tana French

October 4, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 1 6 min read


The Trespasser is the sixth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, each of which focuses on a different detective. The Trespasser brings back detectives Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway from The Secret Place to investigate the murder of a young woman who appears to have been killed while preparing for a date.

I’ve read all of French’s books, and long after I’ve forgotten the guilty party (and sometimes the crime) in each, I remember the detectives. French writes intricate portraits of differently broken people who see the role of murder detective as less of a job than a calling. I wanted to talk to French about what she, and her characters, find so enthralling about the job. I was also dying to ask her about her interrogations scenes. Her detectives are cerebral, and as such her books always climax in the interrogation room

The Millions: The daily lives of the detectives in that murder squad room feel so natural and lived-in. Does your portrayal of life as a detective come from experience or research?

Tana French: I have a lovely friendly detective who answers all kinds of questions for me. He’s retired now but he was a detective with the Irish police. For the more forensic stuff I have books and do a lot of online research. But a lot of it is this guy. Most of the time I don’t know what questions to ask and he’ll just tell me stories and talk to me. That’s where you get things like the atmosphere of the squad room and the atmosphere of a case that’s not going well. The moment when it all breaks and it all comes together, and all of this energy that you pumped into the case suddenly rushes back at you like a flood. I wouldn’t have even known how to ask about that but he tells the stories and I pick up bits here and there.

TM: Many of your lead characters are young detectives who are still enamored of the job. When you have older characters, the talk about how glamorous they found the job when they were starting out. What is it about the job of murder detective that they, or you, find so enticing?

TF: They’re dealing with the highest stakes possible: life and death, truth and lies, justice. And they’re dealing with it all when what’s on the line is people’s lives, and justice for victims and for families. It doesn’t get much farther from my life. I was an actor, now I’m a writer. So much of what I deal with is imagination, empathy, it’s not concrete. It’s not solid and real and demanding of you. If a detective has a bad day, somebody could get killed. The common thread, on very different levels, is the search for truth. If you’re an actor or writer, what you’re aiming for is to tell the truth from someone else’s perspective. You’re always digging for truth to give to your audience. The detectives in a much more concrete and immediate way are searching for truth. A lot of the times the truth in a murder inquiry is very complex. The core truth may be objective — A killed B — but the circumstances around that are shades of gray, they’re complicated, sometimes the result you want isn’t necessarily the result you’re supposed to be chasing.

What do you do when you’re in this vise grip where either you’re going to break some rules or something isn’t going to get done? They’re caught in the complications in what seems from the outside to be a very simple question; who killed this person? I find it fascinating that they’re digging for an objective truth that in the middle of all this chaos and complication they can hold up to the country at large and say, “Yes this is the truth.”

TM: You describe the murder squad room as an old boys’ club, populated by jaded middle-aged men. Frequently the lead character is outside of that type, finding a way to mold their own strengths to the role of detective. You might not say that Stephen or Antoinette would objectively make a great detective, but they find a way to play to their own strengths. What draws you to these anti-detective types?

TF: In a kind of elite, tight knit group, the semi-outsider is always going to be the most interesting, because they’re going to have the most nuanced viewpoint on what’s actually going on in there. People who take for granted the shared culture aren’t as interesting because they don’t have any insight into it. It’s always most interesting to have a narrator whose position is halfway between that tight-knit group and the reader. The pull to belong would be very strong, but would also sharpen the sense of not belonging. It ups the stakes for the character.

TM: In my opinion, one of your trademarks is when the book’s investigation culminates in one long interrogation scene. They’re 20-40 pages long and so fully realized — every emotion, facial expression, and change of body language or tone of voice is catalogued, because they’re all tools the detectives are using, or clues they’re picking up on. I always get excited when I realize I’ve gotten to this scene in each of your books. Do you relish writing them as much as you seem to?

TF: No! They’re the hardest to write by far. If you think about it, they’ve got limitations right from the outset. You can’t digress. If you’re writing an ordinary scene it can go off in different directions. In an interrogation scene there’s no leeway for that. You’re there for one purpose and one purpose only. There isn’t the give and take you’d have in a normal scene,  with one or two or three characters pulling against each other. The detectives are driving this interrogation, end of story. That limits your options.

The big one though is if you’re writing a non interrogation scene, the character’s objectives can be part of the mystery. In an interrogation scene the character’s objectives are obvious with the territory — the detectives are trying to find out some information, the person being interviewed is trying to keep it away. The only interesting thing left is the actual information involved.

I’m glad you said fully realized — the big danger is that it will become purely functional. The narrator at that moment is all about getting that piece of information. You have to make sure that the emotional connection to the narrator is in place without letting it drag down the scene.

SPOILER ALERT: The rest of the interview concerns the final scenes of The Trespasser. Go read it and then come back.

TM: That’s what makes the scene where Stephen and Antoinette are interrogating McCann, their fellow detective, so interesting. They all know what information they have, and what information the other people have, and what’s in their best interest, and yet there’s still the possibility that someone’s going to slip up. And the only tools they have in that moment are their conversational wiles.

TF: They don’t actually get him to admit the murder, mind you. That was a tough one. I was writing the interrogation scene and I suddenly realized that there was not a chance in hell he was going to confess to this murder. Because he just wouldn’t, not to them, he just would not do it. Now they’ve got their big grenade of information, the truth of Aislinn’s agenda, and it’s certainly going to shift the dynamic, but he’s still not going to come out and admit that he killed her, because he’s a detective, he knows how this works. There’s not a chance these two rookies are going to erode 20 years of experience.

My husband is my first reader. I told him, “I have a major problem here, can we go out to lunch and discuss it?” I was laying out the problem for him and like a shot he said, “Oh, O’Kelly makes him confess.” It’s funny, so much of a book takes place in your subconscious. I had seeded O’Kelly throughout the book, he was there as this ambivalent figure who may or not be on Antoinette’s side. And of course it was obvious that he was the only person who could make McCann confess, and that that would be a revelation not just about McCann but about O’Kelly as well. All I knew was that this interrogation scene could not be a winner for Antoinette and Stephen.

TM: And yet they do get under his skin. He agrees to let them interrogate him, and he does slip up a few times. What is it that you think makes people incriminate themselves

TF: A ridiculous percentage of people talk to lawyers without a lawyer present. It’s something like 70%. They figure if I’m just helpful, they’ll realize that I’m a good guy. Of course the cops play to that. It’s very tempting to see the police being on your side. For McCann it’s the urge to make sure that he has some control over the story that’s out there. That the story he believes in his head isn’t completely suppressed in favor of the alternate narrative that’s coming out.

TM: Right, and that’s how they needle him. They persist in presenting a different version of him and he can’t not refute it.

TF: The interview room is a great place to set a scene. What you say in here matters, it will define your life forever. And so for McCann in particular, to him the interview room is an even more charged room, what he says and does there matters enormously. It’s not an environment in which he can just refuse to talk and let a completely false story of him and Aislinn find footing.

TM: Was two detectives interrogating another detective harder or easier to write than a detective interrogating a civilian?

TF: It’s like watching two top-level martial arts experts face off. Every single kick or strike that one of them tries, the other has known the block for for years. It did make it harder to move the scene forward, at the same time it was very very interesting to write. What tactics are they going to try next and how does he block it? Rather than being an interrogation scene with a civilian where the civilian is coming in naive, without any practice, and will deny everything or try to lie. Denial and lying are amateurs’ weapons. Here, both sides had professionals’ weapons, and that made it very interesting to write.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Janet is a freelance writer and semi-professional baker living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in The Awl, The AV Club, the Chicago Reader, and Chicago Magazine. She is the co-host of YouTube's The Book Report and blogs about presidential biographies at At Times Dull. Follow her @sojanetpotter.

One comment:

  1. Excellent interview. I have avoided mysteries all my life (working in policing makes me roll my eyeballs at police cliches on TV and in books, plus sexual serial killer novels do not deserve my time – the worst, just don’t get it, it is like porn) but Ms. French’s novels have always tempted me; her books are consistently well reviewed. Today I bought In the Woods, and so far so good. Her policemen are well drawn and have depth. Oh god, am I going to turn into a reader of mysteries?! Well I think I may already have done so: Pierre LeMaitre’s “The Great Swindle” was a delight and Dan Vyleta ain’t too shabby either.

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