French has said in interviews that she is most interested in mysteries where “whodunnit” is not the biggest question, and The Wych Elm foregrounds this idea. While there is a murderer to be uncovered, her main preoccupation is the bigger mystery of the self, and how our fixed sense of who we are can be so easily unmoored by events... There is little action in the novel, except at the beginning and end; most of the plot unfolds through dialogue, which is one of French’s greatest strengths. She has always had a pitch-perfect ear for the shifting power dynamics in conversation, particularly the police interrogation.... The narrative is slower than in the procedural novels, but the rewards are greater; the big questions linger in the mind long after the superficial ones are resolved. The Wych Elm should cement French’s place in the first rank of literary novelists.
So The Wych Elm offers a persuasive critique of social privilege. But the murders themselves – there’s more than one – seem like a departure from, rather than an expression of, the social reality the novel depicts. In the Dublin series, the psychology of the murders is always slightly implausible, even fairy tale-like; the interest lies in the lives of the detectives and in the investigative process, with its twists and turns. Here, though, motivation must be accounted for, since the narrator is bound up in several crimes rather than just analysing them from the outside. But the eventual explanation makes the murders appear abstruse, even silly. They are intellectual, experimental, more Dostoevsky than Highsmith.
French has demonstrated that she is the heir apparent of Patricia Highsmith in anatomising the worst of human motives. But unlike Highsmith, she shows a generosity towards her protagonists, however flawed. We are taken into an ever-darkening minatory world, with a sort of solution arrived at in the remarkable final section of the novel. But it’s nothing like as neat as those found in the British Golden Age of crime fiction — the writing is too edgily neurotic for that. While some characters in the large cast are a touch under-developed, the comprehensive grip exerted here places The Wych Elm among French’s best work.
As a reading experience, The Wych Elm never comes into view. It’s so replete with reflections and revelations, currents and cross-currents, that you’re left in a near-constant state of befuddlement about what French – fêted for her series of six books about members of the Dublin Murder Squad – is trying to achieve. It’s a question that, while prompted by the novel’s hectic composition and bizarre length, is intensified by the broader debate about the aims and claims of genre fiction...When a book as multifariously ambitious as The Wych Elm fails to achieve the ideal fusion – every element balanced and justified and mutually enriching – it creates a pervasive feeling of doubt over where the author’s priorities lie; where, if anywhere, the reader should look to find pleasure or interest.
French is very good at creating cosy havens with an underlay of foreboding and the Ivy House has an otherwordly quality as Toby navigates his 'new surreal chessboard' of police tape, reporters and incessant questioning. The claustrophobia of the place, once loved for its seclusion, makes for uncomfortable reading. But the ghostly wych elem, the meat of the story, takes 150 pages to reach, making for an odd structure with a melodramatic, tacked-on ending.
This is French’s first stand-alone book, after six novels centred on various members of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad. Fans of those emotionally complex thrillers will not be disappointed; French is just as good at documenting the experience of being investigated by the police as she is at exploring the investigators. Her dialogue has always been superb; she has a perfect ear for the way real people, in particular real Irish people, actually speak, and even her most harrowing books are leavened by wit. The Wych Elm is no exception. It’s a reminder, especially to those who still dismiss crime fiction as a cheap thrill, that French is one of this country’s very best novelists.
...large chunks of the book are dedicated to Toby's conversations with his close-as-siblings cousins Susanna (nerdy humanitarian-turned-young-mum) and Leon (Berlin-based hedonist), during which they painstakingly dissect the teenage memories that have been unearthed by recent events. Through these intimate - and lengthy - exchanges, we gain a deep understanding of each complex individual and the intricate dynamic which has evolved between them down the years... The Greeks, Uncle Hugo tells us, believed a wych elm grew at the gates of the Underworld. This fine novel may be about a nightmarish secret lurking inside the trunk of a tree but it is also about the secrets inside all of us which, if we are lucky, will remain hidden, even from ourselves.
French has managed to do something quite rare with her narrator. She has got under the skin of an arrogant but appealing man as he’s forced to check his privilege... The novel is not without its flaws. While Toby and Hugo are deftly drawn, the cousins don’t have the same vitality. I was also left with a few continuity questions: Toby doesn’t get much sympathy for his brain injury. But French offers a masterclass in unreliability; the final 30 pages are unbearably dark and twisty. The Wych Elm succeeds as both an absorbing entertainment and an audacious interrogation of privilege.
...extraordinary new novel... Here’s a things-go-bad story Thomas Hardy could have written in his prime... her work — never dull to begin with — has gained a certain lively freshness... the book is lifted by French’s nervy, almost obsessive prose. To read a French novel... is to enter an O.C.D. world where madness seems very close... Is the novel perfect? Nope... The prose, as fine as it is, as dense as it is, as obsessive as it is, remains in service to the story. This is good work by a good writer. For the reader, what luck.