Detective Francis Mackey should back away from this investigation, and fast. At least that’s what everyone keeps telling him. The murder victim is his old sweetheart, Rosie Daly, a bubbly sprite of a girl who left him the night they planned to elope. He’s spent the past 20-odd years stewing over his abandonment, imagining her around every corner, when really, Rosie was dead and buried in the basement of Number 16.
These numbered houses are at the core of Tana French’s third novel, Faithful Place, a book as much about the claws of family and a working-class Irish upbringing as it is about whodunit. Mackey left his family the night Rosie disappeared, moving away without her, not to return until dragged back by a sister hysterical over the discovery of Rosie’s suitcase, which leads to the discovery of her body. Mackey is then privileged with both sides of a dichotomy: He’s an insider and an outsider, a prodigal son who returns home to find everyone the same, except that they’ve turned on him. Faithful Place jeers from the page, ugly and rich as any neighborhood entrenched with generations of families who intend to stay put.
It’s a familiar trope for French, whose protagonists from In The Woods and The Likeness deal with insular, stubborn towns that are fiercely loyal to their own, and suspicious of the fuzz. Also familiar is the detective with a troubled past. French cozies up to Mackey as he unearths dark memories that worm into his investigation and inform the trail. It’s a solid formula, but it’s wearing a bit thin on its third iteration—largely because this is French’s most straightforward narrator (and narrative, for that matter) to date.
French’s first two novels were so strong because those traumatic memories clouded not only the detectives’ judgment, but the narrative—readers were never sure whether they were getting the full story, whether the narrator could be trusted to do the right thing, or to even tell the truth. In Faithful Place, French gets so bogged down in her 16 houses that she forgets to put Mackey in any real danger. No one threatens him significantly, least of all himself, or the cardboard cutout of a straight-shooting detective who keeps telling him to leave it alone. If a detective is going to spend half the book raking over painful memories, those memories should do more than simply inform his investigation. Mackey doesn’t change much over the story’s course; his personal history is rewritten, but he remains stagnant. In the end, Faithful Place is a page-turner, but nothing more than a neatly wrapped mystery in an intriguing setting, more tableau than tour de force. It would be great, if only French hadn’t already proved she’s capable of more.