Tana French is the cool new kid on the crime-writing block. The professional actress, from Irish, American, Russian and Italian stock, now resident in Dublin, arrived with her much-lauded Debut, In the Woods, last year. A dark crime thriller springing from an intriguing premise— three children enter a forest to play and only one returns—the novel played as much with the witty yet flawed narrator Rob Ryan's emotions as with the reader's mind. It has been nominated for numerous awards, recently winning the Edgar Allan Poe prize for Best First Novel by an American Author, and has sold more than 88,000 copies.
Despite the accolades, French is bashful about her success. "It really hasn't sunk in at all" she says. "I'm almost glad that I went into this with so little clue, because if I had enough sense to be scared, I would've been terrified."
French's second book, The Likeness (Hodder, August), picks up from the first, but switches the narrative voice to Cassie Maddox, Ryan's one-time partner, who is dealing with the emotional fall-out of the events of In the Woods. It is not so much a sequel, but, French says: "I like writing about the crucial moments in someone's life that everything turns on. But there's a limit to how many of those any one person gets."
The premise for The Likeness doesn't disappoint: Detective Maddox arrives at a crime scene to discover that the victim is her doppelganger, and agrees to infiltrate the victim's life undercover. "I liked that image of the detective looking down at her own dead face," French says. "Usually you see the relationship between the detective and the killer or the killer and the victim, but you seldom see the relationship between detective and victim."
The book traces Maddox's conflicting emotions as she lives the victim's life at the centre of a close-knit and eccentric group of friends who inhabit a crumbling countryside mansion. The clues, red herrings and Maddox's turmoil are expertly interwoven.
French is self-deprecating when it comes to her skills as a writer. "I don't know what I'm doing when I start a book," she says. "It starts off looking like this horrific explosion in a dictionary. I have a premise and a narrator. I can't have a plot summary, because I don't know the characters well enough at that point to know what they would or wouldn';t do."
French believes her acting was great training: "It is a very natural progression, from creating a character and a world for an audience to creating one for a reader—it made sense to me. Writing crime was a natural choice. I love the shape of mystery," she explains. "It's so tight, and yet there's so much you can do with it. You can play with the parameters, turn things inside out, and I really enjoy that."
Having spent much of her life in different countries, including Ireland, Italy, the US and Malawi, French sets her novels in and around Dublin, where she settled in 1990. I believe in books having roots in a specific place," she says. It actually makes them more universal. Dublin is the only city I know in the kind of detail where I can tell you where to get a good pint."
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