This installment continues French's leitmotif of forcing the detective, in this case Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, to solve a brutal murder in a neighborhood or locale that is also the setting for a dark period of their past. And, once again, she pulls this off well, creating a totally plausible past and present for both the setting and the protagonist.
Kennedy, the unapologetic straight arrow that most people on the squad dislike for being that guy, the one who won't even bend the rules a little, is called to solve the deaths of a father and his two kids. The mother survives just barely, but both she and her husband have been brutally stabbed, while their kids upstairs were suffocated in their beds.
The entire home, a shoddily built McMansion in the middle of an abandoned, half-built subdivision, has bizarre holes broken into the walls with baby monitor cameras pointed at them.
French's setting of perfect homes surrounded by the gutted, skeletal remains of a developer's dream-turned-nightmare give the main setting an eerie, zombie-like feeling that permeates the entire novel.
Admittedly, I found the initial premise of this mystery particularly compelling, but that's not what made this the kind of read I stayed up far too late for with no regrets.
What struck me most about this installment was French's research into real police procedure and how the meticulous details she includes in the book serve both to give the reader insight into how actual investigations work but also work as an unobtrusive way to flesh out Kennedy's character. There's paperwork, bureaucracy, coordination between forensic techs and loaner detectives, etc. Handled poorly, that could make for tedious reading. In French's hands, it's insight that adds another dimension to solving the case.
Interestingly enough, I didn't like Kennedy when I first saw him through Frank's eyes in Faithful Place, but in this story I found myself relating to him on multiple levels (I'm pretty sure there've been people who disliked me for being a rather straight arrow, too, but like Kennedy, my family history and past don't allow me to be any other way).
Kennedy's sister in this novel is severely mentally ill, and I've read some reviews that criticize French's handling of this character because her mental illness is her solely defining trait. I disagree with this critique, partly because I've associated with people who have that level of untreated mental illness and thought it was a pretty spot-on portrayal and also because, when a person is that ill and completely untreated, and Kennedy's sister is, quite frankly that does become their defining trait. It may not be politically correct to say so, but the illness simply becomes the primary trait you associate with that person, especially when that is what makes associating with them or having them in your life so difficult. Mental illness to that degree, when left untreated, absolutely subsumes the person and their relationships, and French wrote this with a brutal honesty that made me have to put down the book and take a break several times.
Perhaps at this point I'm simply biased. I love Tana French's writing, as a writer I appreciate the unseen research and technique that goes into crafting her stories and I find the settings, characters and plots compelling. Every time I sit down to review one of her books, I try to find something to critique. I simply don't, and that's just fine with me. Besides, I'm sure the two people in the world who actually read this blog don't mind, either.