The Witch Elm is a 500-page psychological thriller.

The Witch Elm is a 500-page psychological thriller that should have been limited to 300 pages. Not that it isn’t well written. Tana French is an elegant stylist, and her command of human psychology is impressive. The story is reasonably interesting, and the ending surprising. The problem is it takes such a long time to get there. A speed-reader might have better luck than I did.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Now, just in case you’re looking for a story about witches and goblins, back off. The eponymous witch elm, or in the traditional spelling as it is in the text, wych elm, has nothing to do with witches. It’s just a large, 200-year-old tree in the backyard garden of the Ivy House, where most of the action takes place in this novel. This particular elm tree is a rare survivor of Dutch elm disease.

Toby Hennessy’s life begins to unravel. Then it gets a lot worse.

The protagonist and narrator of The Witch Elm is Toby Hennessy. He’s 28 and works in PR and marketing for a struggling art gallery in Dublin. Toby and his girlfriend Melissa are very much in love. Then his life starts to unravel. What follows may not justify a 500-page psychological thriller.

First, Toby uses his PR skills to cover up an art fraud committed by one of his colleagues at the gallery. Weeks later, he’s still wracked with guilt about that. Then he returns home to his flat late one evening and is viciously attacked by two burglars, who leave him for dead. He awakes weeks later in a hospital. The attack has left him with weakness on his left side, a drooping eye, slightly slurred speech, and persistent problems with memory and concentration. To recover, Toby moves into the family homestead, the Ivy House, with his dying uncle.

The Witch Elm by Tana French (2018) 526 pages ★★★☆☆

A human skull, the wych elm, and a ten-year-old murder

One Sunday, when the Hennessy family and Melissa are gathered for lunch at the Ivy House, a five-year-old child discovers a human skull lodged into a huge hole in the wych elm. It’s soon clear that a young man was murdered and his body stuffed down into the tree. That murder, it develops, was committed ten years earlier. And Toby knew the victim. So, should we be shocked that he is a suspect? Clearly not. Obviously, this plot is going to thicken. And of course it does. Read to the end, and you’re likely to be very surprised.

If your taste runs to 500-page psychological thrillers, you may like this book more than I did.

About the author

Tana French was born in Vermont but is typically identified as an Irish writer and actress. She continues to work in the theater, film, and voiceover. To date, the seven novels she’s written have all been set in Dublin, where she’s lived since 1990. The Witch Elm follows the six books in her series about the Dublin Murder Squad.

I’ve read all six of the Dublin Murder Squad novels. You can find capsule descriptions of them all at Reviewing the Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French. And I’ve reviewed a later novel by her as well: The Searcher (A standalone mystery from Tana French set in Ireland’s rural West).

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