Fiction Review: Faithful Place by Tana French

Faithful Place by Tana French, 2010 [SPOILERS]

Faithful Place by Tana French is an unconventional mystery novel. There is a crime, there is a detective and the detective solves the crime, but in many ways this takes a secondary place to the detective’s own story. Frank Mackey, a seasoned detective with the Undercover Squad, is forced to revisit a turning point in his life from 22 years earlier when he was 19 and running away from home. In the book’s introduction, Mackey reflects on this moment:

I was lucky, I guess you could call it. I got to see one of [my moments] face to face, and recognize it for what it was. I got to feel the riptide pull of my life spinning around me, one winter night, while I waited in the dark at the top of Faithful Place (1).

That night when he was 19, Mackey had waited for his girlfriend Rosie Daly to meet him at hill over his neighborhood, but she never showed up. He chose to continue his escape without her, taking the ferry to London and finding a better life for himself. Over the years, he has never returned to his dysfunctional, impoverished family, and the only one of his four siblings he has kept in contact with is his youngest, Jackie. This changes when one day, Jackie phones him to let him know that Rosie Daly’s old suitcase was found in a derelict home in the Faithful Place tenement.

The book largely focuses on Mackey’s relationship to his family. He is resented by his parents and his oldest brother Shay, as they think he has become the enemy (since he works for the police) and has put on airs by marrying a woman with family money. Shay has had to stay close over the years, living in the apartment above his parents, in order to keep his bully of a drunken father in line. Shay blames Frank for leaving the responsibility of the family on him. The younger siblings are less harsh toward Frank, since they weren’t as directly impacted by his absence. Frank is wary of being drawn back into the chaos of his parents’ and Shay’s lives, and in particular doesn’t want his own little girl to grow up anywhere near this environment.

In many ways, Mackey fits the profile of the classic hardboiled detective. After more is discovered about the disappearance of Rosie, Mackey is drawn deeper into the mystery of Faithful Place. He is not allowed to be a part of the official investigation, so is forced to take a vigilante approach. This role suits him, as he is tough and stubborn: “Us Mackey are sturdy and thick-skinned and thick-haired, built for hard work in Dublin weather” (8). Furthermore, he is not opposed to operating outside the law: “If you want to get technical, everyone I grew up with was probably a petty criminal in some way or another, not out of badness but because that was how people got by” (34). He is particularly inclined to follow his own path in the search for the truth, given Rosie’s importance in his life.

French likes to describe her characters’ feelings with grandiose statements and metaphors. While a shade melodramatic, this style is engaging. For example, Mackey describes his role as the head of the Undercover squad thus:

You create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you’re in control. It’s easy to slide into believing you’re the hypnotist here, the mirage-master, the smart-cookie who knows what’s real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you’re still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience. No matter how good you are, this world is always going to be better at this game (5).

Like the two previous Dublin Murder Squad books by French, Faithful Place is an intense ride that lingers long after it’s over. She shows off her skill with characterization in this book, as each member of the large Mackey family is brought expertly to life, and Rosie and other neighborhood kids shine in flashback scenes. The tension between Frank and Shay is so visceral that it is like watching two snarling pit bulls straining at their leashes to get at one another. French uses this tension to create an unexpected ending that simmers rather than explodes with the usual kind of detective story action. I highly recommend this book.

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