Richard and Judy Review The Trespasser by Tana French
"And then it comes. The big one. A murder so rich in criminal possibilities it could make Conway’s reputation."
I was the first woman on-screen reporter in the history of the small regional TV company where I landed my first proper break. That was in the 1970s, and looking back, the casual misogyny I had to put up with from some of my male colleagues would lead to suspensions and sackings today. I remember one hack who routinely used to sit at his sub editor’s desk openly reading pornography, even when I was discussing a story with him. Ugh.
So I found it easy to empathise with Tana French’s central character in The Trespasser, Detective Antoinette Conway. Conway is the only female officer on Dublin’s hard-bitten murder squad, and the target of endless cruel practical jokes and jibes. Her unattended cup of coffee is routinely spat in while her back is turned. Someone urinates in her personal locker. Important case notes mysteriously disappear from her desk when she’s in the loo, causing her hours of extra work.
Unsurprisingly, Conway reckons her male companions want her out, and she swings between angry defiance and deep despair. Maybe she should take that job offer to provide one-one-one personal security to the rich and famous. Better pay. Better hours. Private jet travel and strolls along tropical beaches at a discreet distance from ‘the client’.
And then it comes. The big one. A murder so rich in criminal possibilities it could make Conway’s reputation.
If she can solve it.
"This is wonderfully readable, pacey, page-turner of a novel. We both loved it."
Detective Conway’s salvation lies in her partner, Stephen Moran. He is quietly supportive and dismissive of the adolescent ‘pranks’ played on her by the others. But like Antoinette, he yearns to be assigned a ‘proper’ murder inquiry; chasing down a psychotic killer rather than the dreary, oh-so-predictable cases of domestic violence the pair are routinely given to process.
At first, it looks like the killing of Aislinn Murray is just another ‘domestic’: the beautiful 20-something blonde has been slain with a single punch to the head in her own perfectly-maintained home. Some drunken ‘scumbag’ of a boyfriend, Conway and Murray swiftly decide, expecting a quick arrest and a fast conviction.
But the pair gradually realise there may be more to the murder than meets the eye. Much of the ‘obvious’ forensic evidence is anything but, and Aislinn’s back story throws up more questions than answers.
Are the duo onto something big? Or are they talking the case up to relieve their boredom?
Tana French signals it’s the former by introducing smooth-talking, uber-confident Detective Breslin into the story. Breslin is far more experienced than Conway or Moran and is assigned to the case to help them. So why does it feel as if he’s subtly obstructing them? Who is leaking sensitive case details to the Dublin media? Is there a gangland connection – or something infinitely more sinister?
French writes with terrific pace and confidence, and after the opening pages readers will be rooting for Conway and Moran.
This is wonderfully readable, pacey, page-turner of a novel. We both loved it.
Why is paternal abandonment so important to your story?
It’s a story about stories – the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives, how we adapt those stories to match the reality or try to adapt reality to match those stories, and what happens when the stories spin dangerously out of control. Our parents play crucial roles in shaping not only the stories themselves, but how we construct them and how we make them fit with reality. When a parent is missing, that absence becomes equally crucial: you have to find a way to build it into the story. Antoinette and Aislinn both have missing fathers, but they’ve responded to that in opposite ways. Aislinn allowed it to define her whole life, write her whole story, while Antoinette refuses to let it play any role at all – at least, as far as she’s aware. But as the case gets tangled up with her own life, she’s forced to face the fact that she actually has let her father’s absence shape the way she interacts with the world – and that that needs to change.
Antoinette, your detective, is isolated and shunned by her own police department. Is that her fault – or that of her colleagues.
I think it’s a vicious circle. A tight-knit elite squad is a delicately balanced thing, and it’s made up entirely of people whose stock in trade is the ability to wield control, make other people do what they want them to do. If you get th wrong combination of people, it’s very easy for that to turn sour. Antoinette came into that environment and got off on the wrong foot – and because she’s so ferociously set against ever letting anyone else define her in any way, she refuses to take even the smallest steps to fix the problem. So it spirals, until she’s on the receiving end of everything from nasty ‘pranks’ to outright sabotage, and she’s constantly in defensive mode. By the time this book begins, she’s seeing harassment and antagonism everywhere – even where they may not actually exist.
Is Antoinette paranoid or ultimately justified, do you think, in her opinion of men generally?
I hope it’s pretty clear in the book that Antoinette doesn’t have an opinion of men generally. She has opinions of individual men, including her closest friends, her worst enemies and plenty more in between. As she says, in response to the idea that she has a problem with men: ‘I like most guys just fine, it’s this squad I have a problem with.’ And her problem with the squad has nothing to do with gender; it goes much deeper. There are always people – male and female – who want to take control of other people, force them into certain roles and rewrite their narratives, in order to suit their own agendas. Gender is just one of the tools those people sometimes use. The squadmates giving Antoinette hassle use the fact that they’re men and she’s a woman, but, like Antoinette says, that’s not the reason they’re harassing her in the first place: ‘It wasn’t about me being a woman. That was just their in; that was just the thing that they thought would, or should, make it easy for them to push me around. Deep down, this was simpler. This was about the same thing as everything else humans have done to each other since before history began: power.’ She’s justified to some extent in her opinion of the squad – but only to some extent. A few of them are genuinely trying to force her out, and being pretty vicious about it. But she’s allowed that to colour her view of the entire squad, till she can’t actually see them as they are any more. She’s shaped events into a narrative where she’s the doomed lone warrior going down fighting the barbarian horde, and she can only see the squad through the lens of that narrative.
Can women ever work happily, effectively and on equal terms in an otherwise all-male environment?
Sure. I’ve done it. The real division isn’t between men and women, or any other two demographic groups; it’s between people who see everyone else as real individual human beings to be treated with basic respect, and people who don’t. If you get an environment full of the first kind, it doesn’t matter who’s what gender: things will work out fine. What I’ve found interesting is how many people really want to see this as a book about male-female tension, when in fact there’s nothing gender-specific about what Antoinette is dealing with or how she deals with it. I think it’s because women are often defined as women first and human beings second – so when an individual woman and an individual man have a problem, the assumption is that it’s not one person having a problem with another person; it must be about the fact that she’s a woman. It’s a bit depressing to realise that, in 2017, if you write a book where the main character is female – even if the story has nothing female-specific about it – it’s still not seen as a book about human experience; it’s seen as a book about female experience.
- Do you think that having a central female detective changes the tone of a crime novel?
- Discuss the dynamic between Antoinette and her partner Stephen.
- Tana French is very clever at manipulating the reader and changing our expectations. Discuss how she uses this in The Trespasser.
- Discuss the ending of the novel – what do you think the future holds for Antoinette?
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