Mystery vs. “Psychological Thriller”

Note: If you haven’t read Tana French’s books – In The Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place – and are planning to, stop reading this post now! Or go ahead, but consider yourself warned: I give away at least one ending.

I used to re-read books much more often than I do now. The publishing business is so future-focused (content-wise; I’ll save the dead tree vs. e-reader discussion for another time) that when I was working in it I was hyper-aware of what contemporary fiction was coming out, and eager to get my hands on it and discuss it with friends who were similarly immersed in Book World.

However, even when I did re-read books more frequently, I re-read mysteries less than other genres, because mystery books tend to be plot-driven, and if you remember every twist and turn, they are less fun to read. At the very least, it’s better to leave long gaps between readings so that you forget some of the details, and can read it without knowing what’s going to happen ahead of time.

Tana French mysteries are a different animal. Some might not call them mysteries at all, but psychological thrillers. There is a difference between the mystery, thriller, and suspense genres, and it’s an important difference for authors and dedicated fans, but I have never really distinguished between them, as a reader; if the main propelling force of the book is a question – anything from “Whodunnit?” to “How did these letters from the Civil War get into the attic?” – I call it a mystery.

Back to Tana French, author of In The Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place. I read these in the order they were published; the first two back-to-back in December 2008, and the latter when it was released in July 2010. I remember being disappointed/outraged at the end of In The Woods, because the book actually involves two mysteries, and the initial one (the spooky, possibly supernatural one) is not solved. However, looking back at my review in Goodreads, maybe I wasn’t upset as I remembered.

I found a copy of In The Woods in a used bookstore recently and decided to re-read it, this time knowing in advance not to expect resolution of the first case. Also, it had been long enough since my first reading that the story was familiar, but I had forgotten enough so that I was pulled along by the story almost as well as the first time. And I did enjoy it the second time around – maybe even more so, as I was prepared for and had accepted the fact that one of the two mysteries remained just that – a mystery. (Though Rob and Cassie’s partnership seemed even more romanticized – by narrator Rob – than I remembered.)

The Likeness had no such problem: one main mystery, resolved neatly. But the premise is so inventive (if unlikely) and the detail so vivid that the word “neat” hardly applies – The Likeness is fabulously gripping, and I enjoyed re-reading that as well. In fact, looking back on my review from December 2008, I think my enthusiasm for both books grew upon re-reading.

Faithful Place was perhaps a fraction less special than the first two, in that it was more straightforward: a complicated case, sure, and the main character is emotionally invested in it, but it has neither the lingering spooky mystery of what happened to Adam (Rob) Ryan as a child and the charged relationship between Detective Ryan and his partner Cassie from In The Woods, nor the incredible premise of The Likeness, where Cassie goes undercover for a dead lookalike. (French uses the same “stable” of characters, but the narrator shifts from book to book: Rob Ryan in In The Woods, Cassie Maddox in The Likeness, and Frank Mackey in Faithful Place.)

French’s books are less formulaic and more lushly detailed and imaginative than your average mystery (or thriller), and I recommend all three of the books she has published so far. Be prepared for them to get in your head though, beyond just the addictive, “what happens next?” page-turning quality of a good mystery – perhaps that’s what’s meant by “psychological.”

What I’m reading: In The Woods, Tana French; The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman
What I’m listening to: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, Guided By Voices

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