In the Irish mystery novel Broken Harbor, by the American expat writer Tana French, a detective arrives at the scene of a triple murder and steps into what feels like a real-estate ad. Other than a bloody tableau in the kitchen, where the wife was found clinging to life and the husband lies dead, and the bedrooms where the children wait cold in their beds, the house is strangely immaculate, with not a speck of dust on the sleek, modern furniture, or a picture frame out of place on a mantelpiece. Even in the kitchen, the detective can’t help but see double, noticing the highly desirable light from the floor-to-ceiling windows as well as the dark stain spreading across the tiles. So durable is the image of the dream house that not even a nightmare can fully eclipse it.
But the house, like many a listing, appears to better advantage the less time one spends looking. The floors are buckled with damp, the rooms are oddly proportioned and the walls are pocked with inexplicable holes. The surrounding development also suffers as it comes into focus. “At first glance,” the detective thinks, “Ocean View looked pretty tasty,” with “big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money.” At second glance, he sees neglect in the overgrown grass. By the third glance, he realizes that “you could look straight through three out of four houses, to bare rear windows and gray patches of sky.” The model neighborhood stands mostly empty, one of the many “big bets placed on the future” that foundered after the 2008 financial crisis. French, who published the novel in 2012, was inspired by the real “ghost estates” full of unfinished houses that blighted the Irish landscape after the crash.
In the novel, the victims come to represent an entire generation who were sold a vision of prosperity built on a bad foundation. It emerges that disaster came calling months before their gleaming kitchen ended up doused with blood. Their pivotal mistake was to buy the house in the first place. Desperate to “get on the property ladder,” they abandoned a close-knit group of friends in Dublin, choosing an image of security purchased from a brochure. When the real-estate bubble burst, the value of the house evaporated along with their life savings, and the husband lost his job in the ensuing downturn. By the time the detectives arrive, the now-worthless house is on the brink of being repossessed.
When the book first came out, it dramatized a popular sociological narrative. For people like me, who came of age around 2008, the promise of “the property ladder” lay in pieces—so the story went—because we understood that we would never reach even the lowest rung, or would fall into bottomless debt if we did. I try not to trust too much of what I read in the Style section, but I will admit that the stories about millennials as eternal renters formed my understanding of my own future, in which, for a long time, I never expected to own anything of more value than a laptop or a bicycle. It wasn’t only French’s victims who seemed to have died, but also the economic ideology they had inherited—the faith in a comfortable destiny ordained via real estate.
In the past year, the pandemic has rewritten the trend piece about my generation. Homeownership rates have risen to their highest level since 2008, driven mostly by buyers in their thirties and early forties. Maybe global instability inspired people to exert control over the personal sphere, imparting a sense of urgency strong enough to overcome the story that we’d been told about ourselves. Or maybe low mortgage rates simply underscored what was already becoming evident, which is that the tale of a lost generation was far too flat to capture our vastly unequal society: even if most millennials won’t earn as much as their parents, that’s consistent with many millennials amassing more than enough wealth to acquire property.
At the simplest level, it’s easy to see why people, confined to their homes, would start dreaming of bigger, better ones. I, too, would like to escape my apartment, where the kitchen table has become my husband’s desk in this work-from-home era, and there’s nowhere to be alone, in the sense of out of earshot. Since the advent of the pandemic, I’ve spent more evenings on Zillow than I care to count, flipping through serene images of empty rooms with parquet floors and tiled fireplaces, or sunny kitchen nooks overlooking backyards. I routinely work my way through every listing in my own Boston neighborhood, where I can’t afford anything, and in several small New England cities, where I possibly could. The pleasures of Zillow are the pleasures of miniatures: each overpriced condo becomes a virtual dollhouse, a world whose charm is that it can be comprehended in a single glance, or arranged to my liking with the barest nudge of a fingertip.
At the same time, I’m embarrassed by this acquisitional make-believe, which suggests that the bourgeois imagination formed by my comfortable childhood remains stronger than the more capacious one I’ve tried to cultivate since—one that makes room for a future where housing would be acknowledged as a human right, and no person would want for a pleasant place to live. Logically, there may be no contradiction between desiring a home for me and mine and believing that every person should have one. But, in practice, I found my way to a redistributive politics in the decade of my life when I felt most precarious, and believed most unquestioningly in the generational forecast that I would forever subsist month-to-month. I used to be sure that I would lack not only the inclination but the means to reenact my nineties-era upbringing, when I understood politics as something that stopped at our doorstep. Now I worry that if I recreate that life’s sense of security I may also reproduce its complacency.
Maybe that’s why I’ve been drawn lately to Tana French’s novels, in which the lust for property is always primary to the plot, and always somehow morally deforming. Her novels portray the pull of a hunger for ownership that we usually minimize in the name of social nicety; most of her stories turn on the insight that people will do anything for real estate. To return to Broken Harbor, the murderer is revealed—spoilers ahead, for this novel and others—to be the young wife and mother, who smothered her children with pillows in a sick twist on a bedtime ritual and stabbed her husband with a kitchen knife intended for carving up prime cuts of meat. This devastating parody of the domestic averts the real disaster—life after the loss of the house.
In a mystery novel, murder is always, in part, an immoderate metaphor, a way to personify the half-formed fears that hover at the edge of any mundane existence. The genre’s appeal grows in eras of high anxiety. In a famous essay bemoaning the appetite for detective novels, written shortly after the form experienced a heyday in the 1930s, the literary critic Edmund Wilson came up with a theory to explain the trend: “The world during those years was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to try to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility,” he wrote. In uncertain times, what could offer more pleasure than watching a superlatively rational protagonist establish facts, apportion blame and render the inexplicable clear? In a Tana French novel, medium mirrors message: both genre and plot enact a search for security. But the desire for property—and for what property represents, namely a sense of control, a feeling of permanence—always twists French’s characters into uncomfortable moral formations. I’m aware that my “all-pervasive feeling of guilt”—according to some critics, another defining feature of my generation—is of no use to anyone, but I wondered if these novels could cut through it to show me whether there is, in fact, anything suspect about the longing for a house.
French occupies a rare place in the publishing landscape, straddling the categories of mass-market pleasure-read and critical darling. You can find her books on sale at the airport or extolled on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Though not the best known of the crop of women writers penning popular crime thrillers—a group that includes Gillian Flynn, Celeste Ng, Paula Hawkins and Megan Abbott—she’s set apart by having the most literary sensibility. Each of her eight novels, which include six installments in her “Dublin Murder Squad” series as well as two standalones, plays a new game with genre—incorporating elements of gothic romance, family melodrama, Halloween horror—and speaks in the distinctive voice of a different protagonist.
If French varies her style, she has also honed a formula, in which the idea of home is a foundational element. In three of her first four books, a case returns a detective to the site of a childhood trauma—the forest where his friends disappeared, the house where he was jilted by his first love, the beach where his mother walked into the sea. (Other entries mix up the recipe but maintain the overall flavor, establishing a hunger for belonging as the source of the narrator’s vulnerability: a fatherless detective investigates the murder of a woman who was likewise abandoned; a working-class cop with bourgeois aspirations is assigned to a case at a tony boarding school.) The protagonists are seduced by the possibility that their cases could be chances to correct old wrongs, heal primal injuries or rewrite the stories that have determined their lives. The past intrudes on the present and creates confusion. Home, in these novels, is a magnet that bends your mind out of shape—the place where your view of your own motivations is subject to the most profound distortion.
In The Likeness, French’s second novel, the hidden damage that defines Detective Cassie Maddox is the loneliness of a life without kin or counterpart. An orphan and an only child, Cassie grew up envying school friends who “had the family nose or her father’s hair or the same eyes as her sisters.” The longing for home extends to an ache for the refuge we find in other people. “What I wanted was someone I belonged with, beyond any doubt or denial,” she says, “someone where every glance was a guarantee, solid proof that we were stuck to each other for life.” At the opening of The Likeness, Cassie is reeling from the loss of her former partner, the only person with whom she ever “matched.” Then her perfect doppelgänger turns up, dead of a stab wound. The uncanny note fits the book’s wistful tune; after all, there’s something almost mystical about the ordinary feeling that Cassie is searching for.
At first, Cassie’s rootlessness manifests in her indifference to having a place of her own. “This country’s passion for property is built into the blood,” she thinks. “Centuries of being turned out on the roadside at a landlord’s whim, helpless, teach your bones that everything in life hangs on owning your home.” But, somehow, “that gene missed me. … I like the fact that my flat is rented, four weeks’ notice and a couple of bin liners and I could be gone any time I choose.” That changes when Cassie goes undercover as the dead woman, Lexie, a graduate student who shared an old Georgian manse outside Dublin with four other literature Ph.D.s. The first time Cassie sees the ramshackle estate, she glimpses a life she would willingly tie herself down to. “If I had ever wanted a house,” she thinks, “it would have been a lot like this one.” French has acknowledged a debt to Donna Tartt’s gothic thriller, The Secret History, about an insular clique of classics students at a liberal arts college, and the postgrads of The Likeness are equally charismatic anachronisms. They wear long skirts and pressed slacks, and spend their evenings reading Chaucer and tending their herb garden. Before long, Cassie begins to interfere with her own investigation, as if hoping to disappear into her double’s world. Slowly, she realizes how completely her new friends have defied convention, committing, through a covenant of mutual ownership, to a life they’ve vowed never to change or leave.
To the students, homeownership is the ultimate inoculation against life’s contingencies. “The only people who are capable of either unfettered action or unfettered thought” are those who have the mental security of “permanent safety,” argues Daniel, the group’s dominant figure. This is why, when he inherited the house from a distant relative, he suggested splitting the deed with his friends. “Once you own your home, free and clear, what is there left for anyone—landlords, employers, banks—to threaten you with?” he asks. “I wanted us all to have that chance at freedom.”
Unlike in a series with a recurring hero, there’s no guarantee that anything in a French novel will end well. Instead of a happy conclusion, her books tend to contain a brief reprieve in the third act, a glimpse of the way things could have been. In The Likeness, Cassie watches a phone video of a perfect summer day that the friends spent “lying on the grass drinking wine out of plastic cups and eating strawberries and arguing lazily.” That simple pleasure echoes through a night when she feels so at home that she confuses the stolen memory for one of her own. She imagines a future in her assumed identity: “Cherry blossom falling soft on the drive, quiet smell of old books, firelight sparkling on snow-crystalled windowpanes at Christmastime and nothing would ever change, only the five of us moving through this walled garden, neverending.”
When everything falls apart, the reader is left with the pain of a loss that could have been averted. Murder stands in for every form of bad fortune, for all the common disasters that could someday afflict our own lives. The solution to the mystery is a map backward from calamity, with an X to mark the moment on which everything turned. (“If we’d been nonsmokers, this might never have happened,” remarks one character, reflecting that the fateful string of events started with a search for cigarettes.) Detectives, as Wilson argued, are avatars of order, control freaks trained to discern every hidden contingency. In French’s novels, that strategy never yields the intended outcome. But her books still leave the reader longing to reattempt it—as if, having seen the one danger that the characters didn’t anticipate, we might finally steer the story safely home.
Of course, no house can be made fast against disaster, as the crime scene that begins every mystery novel reminds us. Even the most peaceful homes hold the memories of small misfortunes and everyday cruelties. In this sense, every house is a haunted one. Our habitations also give lodging to the ghosts of things that didn’t happen—consider the planned suburb in Broken Harbor, a place shadowed by the phantom awareness of what it was supposed to be. If every life is full of branching possibilities, then every house contains countless unlived destinies: a million better outcomes, and a million that are worse.
As a genre, haunted-house novels investigate this instability, and relate it to the problem of material security. In “Romance and Real Estate,” an influential essay from 1983, the critic Walter Benn Michaels notes that such stories always begin with the anxiety of precarious ownership. He quotes the author Stephen King on the movie The Amityville Horror: “What it’s about is a young couple who’ve never owned a house before … and the horrible part is not that they can’t get out, but that they’re going to lose the house.” The fear of loss goes beyond the terror of a bad investment. A house is not only a place where one lives, but a physical embodiment of the life that one lives in it; to lose a home is to lose the self that took shape inside its frame. Michaels writes about The House of the Seven Gables, which he reads as a text full of longing for a “title so perfect that it is immunized from expropriation.” Such an ownership would cover not only property, but also personhood. The “attempt to imagine an inalienable right in land,” he argues, is equally an “attempt to imagine an inalienable right in the self.”
The canon of haunted-house novels is full of this conflation. In Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, for example, the character most vulnerable to the ghost’s machinations is the one who has no other home, and thus no fixed self to retreat to. “I will relinquish my possession of this self of mine,” she thinks, as she yields to the house’s power, “abdicate, give over willingly what I never wanted at all.” French’s books, too, are full of people who don’t know who they are at bottom, and go seeking a home in the hopes of meeting themselves there.
This is the central horror of her darkest novel, The Witch Elm, the story of Toby Hennessy, a young man whose defining trait is that he has always been lucky. Born white, male, wealthy and better-than-average-looking, his whole life has unspooled like a self-fulfilling prophecy. “You went in knowing that, no matter what happened, you’d be grand,” a friend says in the early pages, when Toby gets a slap on the wrist for a display of arrogance that should have cost him his career. “And so you were grand.” That changes when a violent break-in leaves Toby with brain damage and a permanent limp—and the skeleton of an old school friend shows up in a hollow tree on the grounds of the Ivy House, the gracious mansion that has been in his family for his generations. He embarks on a self-destructive search for a connection between the two mysteries, discovering along the way that everything he thought constituted a personality—charm, confidence, a sense of ease—was only an echo of the way the world treats a person of his demographic, at least until he acquires a visible disability. By the end of the book, he tries to imagine himself from the outside and sees only “this formless thing, boneless, grotesque, squashed like Play-Doh into whatever shape the boss of the day wanted to see.”
If you are what you own, and what you own is an accident of your birth, then who are you? Especially if your fortunes change? Unable to answer that question, Toby endows the Ivy House with more than material significance. The further he falls, the less he can accept that the estate that symbolized his family’s invincibility was always waiting to become the instrument of its destruction. “I don’t think anyone could convince me, even now, that I was anything other than lucky to have the Ivy House,” Toby insists, years after the opposite has become apparent. The house remains, in his mind, the same thing a home represents to the students in The Likeness and the family in Broken Harbor: a place beyond bad luck, random cruelty and the indifferent workings of an unequal society, where you can cordon yourself off from chance and circumstance long enough to find some kernel of unadulterated identity.
French’s fiction captures the talismanic power of a house as well as anything I’ve ever read. Long after its loss, the Ivy House haunts Toby: “All it takes is one whiff of the right smell—jasmine, lapsang souchong, a specific old-fashioned soap that I’ve never been able to identify—or one sideways shaft of afternoon light at a particular angle, and I’m lost, in thrall all over again.” A house can live inside you, guarding the most private self you never want to lose, but it’s better to bury your heart deeper if you can.
All mysteries encourage the reader to identify with the sleuth, to side with the cause of explication in an illegible world. The Detection Club, a group of mystery writers that included Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, famously made its initiates vow to construct puzzles that an astute reader could plausibly solve, and never to assist their heroes with such sleight-of-hand as “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God.” But French twists the alliance between reader and character by hinting that digging for answers will create chaos rather than resolution. In The Likeness, for example, the more Cassie learns, the more reason she has to suspect that the truth will destroy her delicate utopia. What feels like collaboration in an Agatha Christie novel becomes complicity in a Tana French book: we know that more knowledge will only sow trouble, but we helplessly will the detective on.
French’s latest novel, The Searcher, published in October, the eighth month of lockdown, is also concerned with the moral implications of our sense of entitlement to control over our turf. The hero, Cal Hooper, is a Chicago cop who retires to a tiny town in the west of Ireland, to a moldering farmhouse where he hopes to be left alone. French has described the novel as her take on a Western, a genre that has long romanticized the self-enclosed homesteads that its heroes conjure from what they see as empty dust. But like many a lawman who tries to hang up his spurs, Cal gets dragged into one last quest for justice when a preteen who lives in the neighboring mountains asks for help finding her missing brother. Ultimately, Cal comes up against a generation of aging landowners who are fighting to keep their world from changing, and who saw the missing boy, Brendan Reddy, and his efforts to discern a new path for a young man in the modern economy, as a challenge to their authority. That Brendan’s entrepreneurial schemes included selling drugs bothered them less than his underlying refusal to follow in their footsteps and farm. “I don’t want to see this place a wasteland,” one tells Cal. “I wasn’t going to stand by and watch us lose more of our young men to Brendan Reddy and his notions.”
The American Western is all about the control of land, its narrative form inextricable from the stolen expanses on which its heroes stage their individual reinventions. In The Searcher, French attempts to address the violence that white people perpetrate in the name of order—in both cowboy stories and police procedurals. Cal comes to Ireland fleeing the fear that he wasn’t the “good cop” that he always thought he was. Back in Chicago, he covered for his partner after the other man fired at an unarmed Black teenager (and missed), later quitting the force because he saw that it was “unspeakably wrong that [the teenager] had come within a few inches of dying on that sidewalk, and that he had looked at the two of them and expected to die.” Looking back, even late in the novel, he fails to see “where he could have made things go right.”
French tries to convince the reader of Cal’s moral growth by showing how he, who once imposed his will on others, learns to narrow his sphere of concern. Once “addicted to fixing things,” he begins to wonder if he “might have an undiscovered talent for letting things be.” This transformation is facilitated by Cal’s little farmhouse, on which he performs a slow gut renovation, so that what begins the book as an overt metaphor for its owner’s sense of spiritual homelessness becomes, by the end, a cozy separatist fantasy. He acquires a surrogate family and settles down behind a line that the town’s corruption can’t cross.
But French does not know how to reconcile the novel’s insistence that Cal is a good person with the part he played in a near-lethal act of racial profiling. The novel seems to aspire to cut against detective fiction’s tendency to function as “copaganda”; whereas the usual narrative implicitly positions the detective as the good guy, The Searcher takes as its inciting incident a failure of law enforcement. But the book ultimately conforms to genre convention, serving Cal his redemption without asking what sort of reparation or reckoning might be required to square his supposed growth with the systemic violence in which he participated. It would have been interesting to see French turn the Western back on itself, challenging its core assumption that everyone, or at least every white cowboy, is entitled to a place where he can live by his own rules and make a fresh start.
The dream houses of Zillow are a little like Cal’s house in The Searcher: they appeal to our imaginations as places where private life could perhaps take root beyond the reach of the present’s cascading emergencies. To escape at least occasionally into personal happiness is a matter of bare human necessity. But I’ve noticed that hunting for houses I can’t buy on the internet leaves me less prepared to inhabit reality. Thumbing through these pictures feels not unlike flipping to the last page of a mystery novel, reading ahead to find out how it ends; I’m seeking an image of my own future, a glimpse of myself making coffee or reading a book in a place that represents the best-case scenario. The shortest route to resolving the discomfort of the unforeseeable is to care about fewer indeterminate outcomes—like Cal, who sits at home selecting paint colors at the close of The Searcher, having chosen to “let things be” in the wider town. This narrowing of focus has the aspect of a happy ending, but it comes at the cost of indifference to what Wilson called the “impending disaster” that waits beyond the boundary of one’s own property.
For a while, in the middle of The Witch Elm, Toby is happy, living in the Ivy House with his girlfriend and uncle, slowly recovering from all his hurts. He finds his strength in “little rituals,” like brushing his girlfriend’s hair in the morning, or building a fire with his uncle at night. “Looking back, I’m amazed by how quickly they took shape, those rituals, how solid and smooth and immutable they felt,” he says, “as though we’d been there for years and would be there, all of us, for years more.” They won’t be, of course, but they almost could have been, if Toby had only known when to stop trying to solve the mystery.
I can easily call up the image of my life in the dream house, a composite of photos I’ve found on the internet that waits behind a door in my mind. There I am, writing the book I don’t know how to start, in a home office lined with built-in bookshelves. There I am, five, ten, twenty years from now, settling in the evenings in front of a cheerful fireplace (as the listings like to put it: “PREMIUM… This place has it all!”). It’s soothing to imagine that you know what’s coming—even as it can be pleasurable to revel in a false sense of vulnerability. The fun of detective fiction is partly the frisson of danger that it injects into our monotonous lives. There’s something seductive about any story that justifies the impulse to turn inward, to reserve our attention for self-preservation.
Better to respond to the exigencies that are actually in front us—almost all of which, in my case, lie beyond the doorway of my apartment. It has not demanded much of my energy to remake my space for the needs of the moment, by converting coat hooks into mask hooks, or turning a corner that held boots into a corner where mail sat for 72 hours, until we learned that the mail was not really a threat. I can still hear my husband speaking from any room, but foam earplugs provide a form of privacy. The shabby couch is the place where we enact our best rituals, including staying up too late reading mysteries. Like most of French’s protagonists, I’ve never had much talent for patience or contentment. But some nights I think about the fact that we won’t be here much longer and feel satisfied to let it lie.
Art credits: Alexa Meyerman, 12:03 AM and 11:04 AM. Courtesy of the artist.