Tana French: Why I’ve Always been Fascinated by Detectives

Tana French: Why I’ve Always been Fascinated by Detectives

By the time I started writing The Trespasser, I’d spent ten years writing about detectives, and a lot of time thinking about what kind of people might choose that life, and what it might do to them. I wanted to write a detective novel where the heart of the book, the heart of the conflict, wasn’t the murder itself; it was the Murder squad.

I’m lucky enough to know a retired detective, a really good guy who, over the last twelve or thirteen years, has been incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. He’s answered a wild variety of questions for me, everything from ‘What’s the exact wording of the caution and what happens if you get it wrong?’ to ‘If you were this detective, what would you do next?’ He’s the source of basically every accurate detail about police procedure in my books (the inaccurate ones are all mine).

I rang him up once, a few years back, to ask him how he would go about interviewing a suspect in a specific set of circumstances. He gave me a quick demonstration, just off the top of his head, using me as the theoretical suspect. It knocked me sideways. In an instant, like flicking a switch, he transformed from the easy-going, friendly guy I’d known for years into this concentrated, full-on, unstoppable force. He wasn’t being aggressive, exactly; it was simply that he was going to get what he was after, and nothing in the world was going to get in his way. I was only on the phone to him, he was doing this specifically as a favour to me, and still I was leaning back in my chair under the sheer momentum of that drive. I’d seen plenty of videos of detectives interviewing suspects, but none of them had brought it home to me what it felt like to be on the receiving end of that force. It was like having a train bearing down on you.

It was only in that moment that it hit me how much of a detective’s job is about power and control. If you’re a detective, one of your most crucial skills is your ability to make people do what you want them to do, even when they don’t want to, even when it goes against their own best interests. You need to be able to make a witness tell you what he saw even though he knows it might get him killed, or it might get his friend or his loved one arrested. You need to be able to make a suspect confess, or even just keep talking till he slips up, even though he knows it could send him to prison for years. That skill is a necessary one – without it, a lot fewer cases would be solved – but it’s also a dangerous one. There are an awful lot of ways it could go wrong.

When I was maybe two thirds of the way through writing The Secret Place, I started bouncing around ideas for what might come next. I switch narrators with each book, and I was thinking of Antoinette Conway, my second lead in The Secret Place, as a narrator for the next one. Conway is tough, smart, abrasive and uncompromising, and those qualities hadn’t been working too well for her: she had got off on the wrong foot in the Murder squad, a lot of people didn’t like her, and she had no intention of playing nice in order to make friends.

That feeling I’d had, on the phone with the detective, came back to me. I started thinking about what it would be like to work surrounded by people who all had that skill, that other mode instantly accessible – and what would happen if the rest of them started using it against you. What it would be like to have that freight-train force turned on you every day, all day, from all directions, in the place where you were meant to be strongest and most at home; how it might skew your sense of reality and where you stood within it. I started wondering what would happen if Conway pulled a case that looked like a bog-standard lovers’ tiff, right up until that pressure from within her own squad started to escalate – or she believed it did – and she needed to figure out why …

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