6 Degrees of Separation

Six degrees of Separation: From ‘The Lottery’ to ‘The South’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).

As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson (1948)

In this short story, which you can read online at the New Yorker magazine, a lottery is staged in a small village every year. The “prize”, which is totally shocking, is revealed right at the end. It will give you the chills…

‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ by Shirley Jackson (1962)

Another book that will give you the chills is Jackson’s last novel (she died in 1965). We have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously creepy tale about two sisters living in a secluded Gothic mansion with their uncle. The people of the nearest village, where they do their shopping, treat them with scorn and it’s clear they are hated. But why? Well, it’s something to do with poison… (you’ll need to read the book to find out more).

‘The Aosawa Murders’ by Riku Onda (2020)

Poison features in this complex murder mystery from Japan in which 17 members of the same family die after they consume a toxic drink at a celebratory party. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? Again, you need to read the book to find out — although there are no neatly drawn conclusions.

In the woods by Tana Frence

‘In the Woods’ by Tana French (2008)

There are no neatly drawn conclusions in Tana French’s debut crime novel about a policeman with a secret past. When detective Rob Ryan was a young boy he was found clinging to a tree in the local woods, his shoes filled with blood, and the two friends he had been playing with are nowhere to be seen. Now, 20 years on, that event comes rushing back when a 12-year-old girl’s body is found in the same woods.

‘In the Forest’ by Edna O’Brien (2002)

Another Irish murder mystery set in the woods is this controversial novel by Edna O’Brien. Based on a real life triple murder, it is a dark and brooding book. One of the victims had set up home in a remote dilapidated cottage on the edge of the forest to concentrate on her art, unaware that there was a disturbed man living wild nearby…

‘A Line Made by Walking’ by Sara Baume (2018)

Another tale about a woman who moves to a remote house to concentrate on her art is this intriguing novel by Irish writer Sara Baume. It turns out that the young female narrator is having a kind of break down and while she’s living in the house under the guise of looking after it for her late grandmother, she is, essentially, running away from her problems.

‘The South’ by Colm Toíbín (1990)

Running away to focus on art is the central theme in Tobin’s debut novel, which is set partly in Ireland and partly in Spain in the 1950s and 60s. It’s a beautiful, languid story, which looks at history, memory, violence and trauma. I would easily add this novel to my Top 10 of all time, I adored it that much.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a creepy Gothic novel about outsiders to a luminous literary novel about art via tales about poisonings, childhood disappearances, murder and creativity in the countryside.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hodder, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, Tana French

‘Broken Harbour’ by Tana French


Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder; 544 pages; 2012.

Last week Tana French‘s Broken Harbour won the Crime Fiction Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. I read it back in July, within a week or two of its release, after I’d trawled every independent book store near Charing Cross Road looking for it. Not one shop had it in stock and I had to resort to buying it from Amazon as a Kindle edition.

I have a long relationship with Tana French, having read (and loved) In The Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place. And because I knew this one was set in the aftermath of Ireland going bust — a topic that’s only now just emerging as a common thread in Irish fiction — I was eager to read it, hence my search for it on foot (and then online).

Murder mystery

The story is essentially a locked room murder mystery: a young man, Patrick Spain, has been stabbed to death in the family home; his two children have been smothered in their beds; and a fourth victim, Jennifer Spain, is in intensive care but is not expected to recover. There are no signs of forced entry. However, something is clearly not right.

This is how Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy, the detective in charge of the investigation, puts it:

‘There was something very weird going on in that house, and I’m talking
about well before last night. We’ve got a bunch of holes in the walls, and no clue who made them or why — if you can find us any indications, fingerprints or anything, we’d be very grateful. We’ve also got a load of baby monitors — at least two audio and five video, going by the chargers on the bedside table, but there could be more. We’re not sure what they were for yet, and we’ve only located three of the cameras: upstairs landing, sitting-room side table, kitchen floor. I’d like photos of all of them in situ. And we need to find the other two cameras, or however many there are. Same for the viewers: we’ve got two charging, two on the kitchen floor, so we’re short at least one.’

As Scorcher’s investigation develops he discovers some strange things about the Spain family, specifically Patrick, who was made redundant from his well-paid job and then spent countless hours on the internet trying to find out what was making a noise in the interior walls of his house. Was he  paranoid — or depressed? Or was there really something living in his house he couldn’t catch?

Suspenseful narrative

French does a wonderful job of building suspense — the Spains were living on a “ghost estate”, a housing development called Ocean View that was never completed when the Irish economy went bust. Only a handful of homes are habitable. This “haunted blackness of the estate, scaffolding bones looming up out of
nowhere, stark against the stars” gives  the house an eerie setting. The fact that “Scorcher” has bad memories of the area from his childhood, when it was known as Broken Harbour, adds to the claustrophobic feel. The place reverberates with menace and French mines that trench expertly.

She is also an expert at characterisation — and boy, there is an extensive list of well-rounded characters in this one: Patrick and Jennifer Spain, Jennifer’s sister Fiona Rafferty, rookie cop Richie and Scorcher’s troubled younger sister, Dina.

Scorcher, of course, is the standout — he’s appeared in French’s earlier novels, but is the least likable of all the police she has previously introduced us to. He narrates Broken Harbour in a voice that is full of bravado and egotism, a voice that I found annoying pretty much from the start.

I am bloody good at my job. I still believe that. I’ve been on the Murder Squad for ten years, and for seven of those, ever since I found my feet, I’ve had the highest solve rate in the place.

But Scorcher has a softer, more humble side, and as you get to know him over the course of the book it becomes clear that his arrogance is a cover for deep, personal insecurities. He’s actually a damn nice bloke with his heart in the right place — once you understand that, you really want him to figure out “whodunnit”  so that he can maintain his impressive “solve rate”.

An ambitious novel 

But, of course, there are some downsides to this novel, too. Broken Harbour is big, rollicking, often repetitive and sometimes unwieldy. It could have lost a good 200 pages and been all the better for it. There are too many divergent threads, too many red herrings and too many sub-plots going on. This means it takes an age to get to the conclusion — and when you get there you’re so exhausted (or bored or confused) it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying.

That’s not to say this is a bad book. It’s not. I enjoyed it and doubtless plenty of others will, too. Aside from French’s tendency to overwrite things, this is a suspenseful murder mystery that breaks normal crime novel conventions — this is more about why the crime happened and less about who committed it. It also has a kind of Scandinavian feel to it, by which I mean it puts the abhorrent crime into a social context: what part did the rampant consumerism and the subsequent credit crunch have to play in the deaths of one man and his two young children?

In a way, you could probably say they had been broke even before Patrick lost his job. He had made good money, but their credit card had a six-grand limit and it had spent most of the time maxed out — there were a lot of three-figure charges to Brown Thomas, Debenhams, a few websites with vaguely familiar girly names — and then there were the two car loans and the mortgage. But only innocents think broke is made of how much you earn and how much you owe. Ask any economist: broke is made of how you feel. The credit crunch didn’t happen because people woke up any poorer than they’d been the day before; it happened because people woke up scared. Back in January, when Jenny had spent two hundred and seventy euros on some website called Shoe 2 You, the Spains had been doing just fine. By July, they had been broke as all hell. Some people get hit by a tidal wave, dig in their nails and hold on; they stay focused on the positive, keep visualising the way through till it opens up in front of them. Some lose hold. Broke can lead people to places they would never have imagined. It can nudge a law-abiding citizen onto that blurred crumbling edge where a dozen kinds of crime feel like they’re only an arm’s reach away. It can scour away at a lifetime of mild, peaceful decency until all that’s left is teeth and claws and terror. You could almost catch the stench of fear, dank as rotting seaweed, coming up from the dark space at the back of the closet where the Spains had kept their monsters locked down.

That is a long quote to finish on, but I think it showcases French’s prose style and her understanding of what makes people — and society — tick. It also represents the heart and soul of this quite ambitious but slightly flawed novel.

For other, more positive takes on Broken Harbour, please see Guy Savage’s review at His Futile Preoccupations and Danielle’s review at A Work in Progress.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hodder, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, Tana French

‘Faithful Place’ by Tana French


Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 448 pages; 2010.

I have Irish writer Tana French to thank for getting me out of my recent fictional reading slump. I read this novel, her third, in just a couple of days and found it enormously entertaining if slightly over-written — and over-wrought — in places.

Faithful Place is a crime thriller, but it doesn’t feature any of the main characters from her previous two novels — the police procedural In the Woods and its sequel The Likeness. It’s a completely stand-alone work of fiction, but the story does tread similar territory in that it focuses on a murder investigation in modern day Dublin.

The investigation gets under way when the suitcase of a woman once believed to have left Dublin for England 20 years ago mysteriously turns up in an abandoned home. The contents, which include her birth certificate, have not been disturbed. Does this mean she never left the city? And if she didn’t leave, what happened to her?

Enter undercover cop Frank Mackey, who has an exceptional interest in the case: the suitcase belonged to his girlfriend Rosie Daly. Twenty years earlier the pair had been planning to run away together, but Rosie never turned up to their agreed rendezvous point, 16 Faithful Place, and Frank assumed he’d been unceremoniously dumped. It is something he has never quite come to terms with.

Frank, who is a bit of a maverick, is not officially on the police case, but this doesn’t stop him from carrying out his own inquiries on the sly. What emerges is a portrait of a complicated man, who has unceremoniously ditched his working-class roots to pursue a career as a garda. But despite going up in the world — he marries a nice middle-class girl, whom he later divorces, and has a beautiful daughter — Frank can never quite let go of his troubled past.

His off-the-record investigation means re-establishing contact with people living in Faithful Place, the street he grew up on and thought he’d left behind. This includes his over-bearing mother, his alcoholic father and his four siblings. Then there are Rosie’s childhood friends — and Rosie’s judgemental parents.

I’ll admit there are elements of this story which are a bit soap-opera-ish, and Frank’s voice doesn’t feel particularly authentic as a male (he’s far too sappy about Rosie, for a start), but this doesn’t take away from the sheer enjoyment of ploughing through this book to find out what happens next. There are lots of unexpected plot surprises, and the story of Frank and Rosie’s teenage past, told in a series of seamless flashbacks, is nicely done.

What I like about French’s writing style is her ability to nail life in modern Ireland so perfectly you really feel as though you’re sitting in a Dublin pub having conversations with old friends. She gets the politics, the corruption, the consumerist lifestyles and the class divides down pat, but does so without making it seem contrived.

And her ability to write dialogue is also pitch-perfect. There are scenes in this book between squabbling older siblings which have a genuine ring of authenticity about them, perhaps a skill she has developed from her life in the theatre (she trained as an actor at Trinity College). Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Faithful Place wasn’t adapted for the screen at some point, because it would make a good film, complete with the over-the-top, sort of unexpected and not wholly believable, ending.

And while the book could do with a good edit (it’s at least 100 pages too long), it has an intelligence rarely seen in big commercially successful crime novels. French knows what makes people tick, she knows the inner-most secrets of big rambling Irish families, and she knows how the places we grow up in shape our lives and personalities.

In a nutshell, Faithful Place is perfect fare for those who appreciate good solid storytelling with a twist at the end. For me, this is the kind of comfort read that gets me out of the bookish doldrums with a jolt.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hatchette Books Ireland, Ireland, Publisher, Setting, Tana French

‘The Likeness’ by Tana French


Fiction-paperback; Hatchette Books Ireland; 696 pages; 2009.

The Likeness is a hugely entertaining if slightly preposterous crime story set in Ireland starring Detective Cassie Maddox, first introduced to us in Tana French‘s startling good debut novel In the Woods.

This time Cassie’s taken her career down a notch: she’s no longer working in the Murder Squad but is enjoying the regular 9-to-5 grind of the domestic violence division. But when a woman is found murdered in a ruined Wicklow cottage, Cassie is brought in to do some very special undercover work. In a strange twist of fate it turns out that the victim is her doppleganger. She even has the same name Cassie used when she did some undercover work early on in her career — Lexie Madison.

The idea is that Cassie pretends to be the murdered woman so that she can return to the house Lexie shared with four other post-grad students — Daniel, Rafe, Justin and Abby — all of whom are under suspicion for her murder.

Despite the ludicrous idea that it would be possible to pick up where the original Lexie left off without anyone realising the switch, The Likeness comes across as a fairly solid if not truly believable psychological thriller come who-dun-it. It does, however, take its time getting to the crux of the matter, as French spends almost 200 pages explaining how Cassie prepares for her undercover assignment. But once she’s in the house, the narrative kicks off into high-gear, exploring the cultural and social tensions within and without the tight-knit group of five. The  pace is pretty much relentless from then on.

At 696 pages this is a perfect holiday read, because you only need take one book with you. It’s not highbrow literature by any stretch of the imagination but it’s a good meaty read that will have you guessing all the way to the very end. I very much enjoyed it, especially the tinges of Barbara Vine and Nicci French which give it that special page-turning quality.

My only quibble — and it’s a small one — is the romance between Cassie and a fellow detective that underpins the main narrative. While it might serve to make the characters appear more human, more rounded, it actually comes across as a writer trying too hard to appeal to a generalised chick-lit type audience. And, for me, the sappy romantic ending almost made me choke on my toast, ruining what had otherwise been a pretty fabulous (in all sense of the word) read.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Ireland, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Tana French

‘In the Woods’ by Tana French


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 464 pages; 2008.

When I first picked up In the Woods by Tana French at JFK airport on my last trip to New York last October I envisaged it would tread similar territory to Edna O’Brien’s dark, claustrophobic In the Forest. After all, they’re both Irish crime books by Irish writers (who, in my opinion, even look alike, almost as if they are mother and daughter) with much the same titles, but that’s where the similarities end.

In the Woods lacks the literary flourishes that made O’Brien’s book somewhat difficult to read; instead you get a completely absorbing, rocket-fuelled narrative that zips along at Formula One pace. I read this in about two days while on a recent trip to Ireland and found myself thinking about the storyline long after I’d finished the book and repacked it in my suitcase.

Police procedural set in Dublin

The story, a police procedural, is told from the perspective of Rob Ryan, a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad (which, by the way, does not exist in real life), who has a secret past that only his immediate family knows about.

When he was a young boy he was playing with two friends in the local woods, but when dusk arrived none of them returned for their evening meal and a search party was organised. Rob was found clinging to a tree with blood-filled shoes, so traumatised by whatever had happened to him and his friends that he was unable to recall a single detail. His friends were never found, and 20 years on, Rob is still unable to remember what happened.

This troubled history comes rushing to the fore, when Rob and his colleague, Cassie Maddox, are assigned a murder investigation involving a 12-year-old girl whose body is found near the very same woods from Rob’s childhood. Are the crimes linked? Could the perpetrator be the same person responsible for the disappearance of Rob’s friends?

This is the crux of this superbly realistic debut novel — and to say anything more would ruin the plot for those who have not yet read it.

No neat ending

What I liked most about this book is that it doesn’t come with a neat, well-rounded conclusion, which makes the story seem even more authentic, because how many murder investigations have neat, well-rounded conclusions?

It makes you think, makes you fill in the gaps, makes you come up with your own theories and I cannot understand those readers who think they’ve been short-changed by this — and judging by the reviews of Amazon there’s quite a few.

My only quibble — and it’s a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of things — is the “voice” of Rob Ryan, which didn’t seem authentically male to me, but perhaps that was a deliberate device to explain why he got on so well with his female counterpart. In fact, I couldn’t quite work out how I felt about their platonic, almost sibling-like relationship, because as much as it provided additional depth to the storyline, at other times it came across as slightly too cloying. Had neither of these characters discovered the concept of “me time”, I wondered.

In the Woods recently won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and I’m not surprised. It’s an astonishingly well written book by a first time author, one that grips you from various different angles: will Rob’s secret be discovered; will he have a nervous breakdown from the emotional, psychological stress of the investigation; what happened to his missing friends that fateful day in 1984; and what happened to the girl who was murdered more recently? There’s so many red herrings and dodgy clues, it’s impossible to guess the outcome.

And the period details — of Ireland in 1984 and the vastly different New Ireland (before the very recent collapse of the Celtic Tiger) in 2004 — make the story seem particularly believable.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one, and will eagerly eat up her next one, The Likeness, which is lying in wait on my bedside table…