Where to Start with Tana French?

Often you read a book and you instantly know you will read everything that the author writes, good or bad. Tana French is that author for me, and luckily she has not written a bad book yet. Before I became enraptured by her books, I spent a good chunk of time searching ‘Where to start with Tana French’ or asking the Twitter void. Every reader who tried to help me often left a simple tip—‘just begin and you’ll find your way’ after they listed their favourites. And now as a seasoned Tana French reader, I am proud to have my favourites and biases, and finally understand the cult-ish loyalty that her fan base exudes. This list would help you decide in what order to read Tana French books. Or you could simply take the easy way out, and pick any from her eight very good books.

 

Table of Contents

1. Why read Tana French? (jump)
2. Chronological order of publication (jump)
3. Mini reviews of Tana French books + How to choose? (jump)
4. Where to start with Tana French books? (jump)
5. Tips for the best reading experience (jump)
6. My favourite Tana French books (jump)

 

Why read Tana French?

Every year when the air turns slightly cold, I get a familiar longing to read something ‘like a Tana French book’. While I have been easily swayed by books that come close to the feel, I haven’t been able to find an out-and-out replacement. When the autumn and winter book lists pop up on the internet, as much as I love new books, I can think of nothing better than cozying up with the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French.

 

What is it about her books? Her books aren’t set exclusively in autumn or winter (In fact her debut In the Woods begins with a summer day with children at play), they aren’t your typical ‘cozy’ but they have an exquisite sense of place with a slow, literary unravelling of both the mystery (murder, disappearance, unsolved cases, doppelgängers) and the narrator in question. As a reader you trust Tana French completely, as much as you distrust her often unreliable narrators. If she tells you to breathe slow, not rush ahead, you simply sell your soul and listen to her, no matter how long it takes. This arresting quality is Tana French’s biggest strength. She keeps you in awe of the mystery and serves you a flawed narrator with more burdens than what meets the eye. You watch with fascination how the narrators break down and get rebuilt in French’s able hands. Soon enough you are as invested in the redemption (or none) of this new person, as in the resolution of the mystery.

 

Tana French’s books are genre-defying. Each novel reads different in a way that there’s nothing best describe it than as having ‘Tana French vibes’. They are less of whodunnits, and more of ‘Who is the detective’. This delicate balance between the external mystery and the internal conflicts of her characters makes her stand apart from other crime writers. Her books will appeal to different moods of you—whether you are looking for an atmospheric book or literary crime or psychological suspense or a whiff of the supernatural. French’s endings are seldom tied up tight, but the journey towards the truth make them worth your time.

 

Her books are often loosely connected. In her Dublin Murder Squad series, each narrator would have been a minor or side character in a previous book. For example, Casey Maddox, partner detective to the narrator of In the Woods, is the narrator in The Likeness. Maddox’s mentor Frank Mackey becomes the narrator in Book 3 The Faithful Place, and keeps making appearances throughout the series. And so on. How are French’s detectives so distinct in their character, mannerisms, internal conflicts, and execution of their jobs?—This is Tana French’s biggest flex that makes it impossible to turn away from her books and people. I also love the distinct sense of place she imparts in her books be it a physical structure (the mansion in The Likeness, the ghost house in Broken Harbour) or nature (the woods and archaeological site in In the Woods, the rural town and bog in The Searcher). While the mystery was at the forefront in her first two books, socio-political themes become more prominent in others (the working-class families in Familiar Place, ghost estates in Broken Harbour, crumbling mansions and privilege in The Witch Elm). Thinking of a Tana French book brings forth a burst of memories—the place, the characters, the unreliability, the rivals, the blind chase, the hunches, the bent rules, the socio-politics, and the mystery at the heart of it all—absolutely delicious!

 

I hope this list brings you more clarity on where to start with Tana French. But the truth is that once you begin one, you probably would read them all.

 

Chronological order of publication

Her most famous Dublin Murder Squad series, followed by two standalone novels.

Dublin Murder Squad series:
In the Woods (2007)
The Likeness (2008)
Faithful Place (2010)
Broken Harbour (2012)
The Secret Place (2014)
The Trespasser (2016)

The Wych Elm/The Witch Elm (2018)
The Searcher (2020)

 

Mini reviews + How to choose?

If you are a fussy reader and want to give yourself that very best, enhanced reading experience, you’ve come to the right place. Mini reviews of Tana French books in chronological order follow:

 

For fans of incredible atmospheric books

In the Woods by Tana French

In her debut, In the Woods, we are introduced to two investigators of the renowned Dublin Murder Squad. Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddock are good friends and colleagues, investigating the murder of a teen girl in the woods in a small-town Knocknaree. Rob’s well-kept secret, unknown to all but Maddox, is that he grew up in the same town. Twenty years ago, he was discovered at the edge of the very same woods with bloody shoes and slash marks on his body. His friends disappeared and the case was left unsolved. Ryan’s unreliable and shaky memory combined with the eerie woods, and possible suspects slowly blend together the old case in which Ryan was the victim and the new case where he is the investigator.

 
This was my first Tana French novel and it consumed me completely, day and night. You will find yourself shaking your head in disbelief that this is a debut. Just like many of French’s later works, it is difficult to put your finger on why the novel has a gripping, hypnotic hold on you—is it the suspense, the atmosphere, or the narrator? Perhaps all, in the right proportions; or perhaps simply the magic of being a Tana French book.

 

In the Woods offers the best of the ‘unreliable narrator’. Ryan with his bottled-up guilt, anger, fear, and hazy memory puts other unreliable narrators to shame. French’s plot progression makes her strong enough to break free from all genre boxes. I savoured every sentence of In the Woods be it the tingle of psychological suspense, or the police procedural or the melancholic gloom heavy over the narrative. It was thrilling, creepy, and insanely addictive. By the end of the deeply atmospheric, slightly claustrophobic narration, you would’ve pledged your soul to shut yourself in your room for a week and devour all the Tana French books until there are none left in the world.

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For fans of The Secret History and (dark) academia vibes

The Likeness by Tana French

The Likeness reminded me so much of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, that it gave me false expectations. You will find yourself trying to map Henry Winter, Bunny, the Macauley twins, Francis and Julian to the friend circle in The Likeness (with some strong resemblances too). In this novel, which takes place six months after In the Woods, Cassie Maddox has moved from the Dublin Murder Squad to the domestic violence unit. She is persuaded by a former mentor to go undercover to solve the murder of a young girl. Funny story—the murdered girl Lexi Madison is Maddox’s doppelgänger. And the name is the very same alias Maddox used as an undercover agent many years go. Maddox is intrigued by the parallels surrounding the murdered victim’s life and her own. Here is where the plot gets implausible—Maddox goes undercover as Madison. She moves in with Madison’s housemates, one of whom could be a possible killer. The gang co-owns a decrepit mansion where they read Dante, live together, cook together, and spend all their time together. Maddox is swiftly drawn deep into the life of money, privilege, friendship and lies.

 

In her second novel, French establishes that she can pull off a different mood and writing style with ease. The Likeness was unlike In the Woods. It was more modern than moody, yet broody in the right amounts; a homage to The Secret History (PS: You might be slightly disappointed if you are a fan of The Secret History). I loved it, but you would have to believe that a swap of doppelgängers can actually work. (In case you have second thoughts, believe, Tana French makes it work).

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The Likeness by Tana French Where to start with Tana French

 

For fans of immersive family drama

Faithful Place by Tana French

In Faithful Place we follow Frank Mackey, the detective who persuaded Cassie Maddox to take on the undercover case in The Likeness. Mackey is the kind of detective who doesn’t mind bending the rules to solve a case. He is estranged from his family and keeps in touch with his sister only. His personal life is in shambles after his divorce. When Mackey’s old girlfriend’s suitcase turns up at a house, he recollects his failed elopement twenty-two years ago, and his childhood growing up in a dysfunctional working-class family. Mackey has limitations in solving the case because of his personal connection to it, but he is determined to find answers to the questions that have haunted him all his life. Tana French proves her mettle as a writer once again with Faithful Place which is more of a domestic drama than a crime thriller, and also a commentary on class, poverty, and privilege. There are ample tense moments, misunderstandings, drinks at the pub, and riffs between siblings.

 

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Faithful Place by Tana French
 

For fans of haunted houses

Broken Harbour by Tana French

Perhaps Broken Harbour is my favourite Tana French novel. It features Scorcher Kennedy, a competent star detective of the Dublin Murder Squad who, unlike undercover cop Frank Mackey, swears by the rule-book. At first Scorcher and his rookie partner Richie think their case of the murder of a father and two children (wounded mother in intensive care) is a classic textbook case. But something doesn’t sit right.

 

Set in Ireland’s ‘ghost estates’—half-built estates abandoned by developers, and bought by naïve, young folks in the hopes that property prices will rocket one day and mark their fortune— and often taking an unworldly path, Broken Harbour is a heady mix of horror and crime. The family  in question lived in one of the abandoned houses of the economic crash. They are struggling through recession and the unemployed father is convinced that a wild animal is causing havoc in the house, while the mother is desperately trying to hold the family together. But why are there several baby monitors and holes in the walls of their house? What’s missing from Scorcher and Richie’s thorough investigation? Why does the house seem haunted?

 

Kennedy isn’t the easiest of Tana French’s narrators to get acquainted with. He is too disciplined (a bore as Frank Mackey describes him). I absolutely adored how Kennedy’s psyche is exposed bit by bit, in classic Tana French style. His mental load owing to the death of his mother, responsibility towards his mentally ill sister and his work partner’s lack of experience in crime solving take a toll as Kennedy struggles with this straight forward but slightly paranormal case.

 

Broken Harbour examines the impact of the country’s economic doom on individual family units, and the psychological hurdles—both of the murdered victims and the detectives—that affect their reasoning. The eeriness spooked me, the house made me feel cold all over. I found myself staring intensely into the footage from the cameras installed all over the house expecting a supernatural force to trample me to death. This book haunts me to this very day.

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Broken Harbour by Tana French

 

For fans of boarding school stories

The Secret Place by Tana French

Welcome to St Kilda’s, a private all-girl’s school. In an exciting turn of events, Holly Mackey, daughter of Frank Mackey, discovers a note which on the secret notice board of her school. This note ‘I know who killed him’ might be the first clue to the unsolved murder of a teen boy in the school’s grounds the previous year. Newly appointed Stephen Moran (from Faithful Place) is sucked into this mysterious note and the life of snooty, bratty high school girls. Moran and partner Detective Antoinette Conway reopen the case based on Holly’s words but soon realize that teenage girls cannot be trusted. Also, Papa Mackey seems to be having a few tricks up his sleeve.

 

The Secret Place is exciting to read because it feels ‘new’ with multiple narrators but also frustrating (Interrogating teenage girls is no small feat, now multiply that frustration into many rounds of interrogations. Oh! Don’t forget the faculty who have their own stories to share). The book keeps encouraging the reader to solve the case faster than newbie Moran, especially when he can’t see through the obvious. I loved how the story exposes school cliques (the yearning and sacrifice needed to be part of one), strict school rules, and the school administration’s role in determining what’s at stake. One of my favourite scenes is when Holly realizes how her mother is a person with her own agency, and motherhood is just one among the many parts that make her whole. Often The Secret Place felt straight out a suspenseful TV show, but you have to wait for Tana French to reveal her thoughts slowly, steadily, through the minds of a bunch of teenage girls determined to lie.

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The Secret Place by Tana French
 

For the love of procedurals

The Trespasser by Tana French

With The Trespasser, Tana French brings back first-person narration in a classic police procedural through Antoinette Conway (Stephen Moran’s partner in The Secret Place), an unpopular member of the Squad. Detective Conway is a short tempered mixed-race woman navigating belittling and harassment at her workplace. She has serious trust issues and family issues, and takes a while to warm up to her partner Stephen Moran (because he smiles too much). In The Trespasser, Conway-Moran have to investigate what seems like a classic a romantic date night ending up as domestic homicide.

 

I loved the way The Trespasser establishes the duality of what we are and what others think of us. The detective duo (Conway-Moran) remains the same as The Secret Place, but you will be astonished at how Conway’s hold on the narration makes her seem like a stranger, and not the Conway we know through Moran’s narration in the previous book. The human mind houses many emotions but puts together a different performance (persona?) for the outside world. Conway might be less memorable than Cassie Maddox, but she kept me in her hold by how it always felt that I didn’t know her at all. She portrays the subdued rage and the inability to trust that a woman, a loner, an outsider, feels in a workplace dominated by white men, making The Trespasser a treat to read.

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The Trespasser by Tana French

 
For fans of crumbling estates

The Wych Elm by Tana French

In her first standalone novel, a handsome, successful man Toby is attacked by two burglars. To come to terms with the physical and psychological damage (including gaps in his memory) after this terrifying incident, Toby moves to his uncle’s ancestral estate. He finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation when a skull is discovered at the elm tree in the estate.

 

The Wych Elm/The Witch Elm is my least favourite Tana French book, but also French hasn’t written a bad book yet. It is an interesting choice to have a white man who mistakes his privilege for luck as a narrator. The Wych Elm, unlike the Dublin Murder Squad series, is painfully slow. Tana French deftly dissects Toby’s psyche and tears apart his memories of an idyllic childhood in the estate. Pick this up if you like slow burns, unlikeable characters and unreliable narrators.

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The Witch Elm by Tana French What order to read Tana French

 

For fans of second chances in life

The Searcher by Tana French

The Searcher is Tana French’s first book with a non-Irish protagonist. Retired and divorced American cop Cal Hooper moves to the Irish countryside for a non-challenging, quiet life.

 

This slow burn mystery moves forward at a ridiculously sluggish pace with an under-the-radar investigation. It starts off with the typical laid-back life of a retired man trying to begin a new life—drinking with his buddies, repairing the cottage he bought, making chairs and tables. Until one day, a local boy Trey appeals to him for help in tracking his missing brother. Hooper is forced to dig into the disappearance in a hostile, gossipy town that holds its secrets close, away from the prying eyes of an outsider. This is where the story gets very interesting. Hooper, though a cop with twenty-five years of service in the Chicago police force, is now a retired man stripped off his power, with no strings to pull—no police backup to verify claims, and no authorization to conduct an investigation in a foreign land.

 

This premise in the hands of a writer of lesser talent, would have been a wilted story. But in Tana French’s hands, the bucolic rural town engulf you. I felt damp and wet as I trudged through the novel. I could feel myself soaked in mud, alienated by the bogs, suffocated by the peat-laden landscape. The growing father-ward relationship between Hooper and Trey was a delight, written in sharp contrast to the personal problems that accentuated Hooper’s escape to Ireland. Hooper, though less memorable than the Dublin Murder Squad detectives, makes you think about forgiveness, redemption and second chances.

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The Searcher by Tana French Where to start with Tana French
 

Where to start with Tana French books?

After having read all the Tana French books, back to the question that haunted me. Should you read Tana French books in the chronological order? I did. To be honest, I don’t think it really makes a difference what you pick. Each story holds strong on its own. But you get that extra ‘Oh I know this guy from—’ when you read the books in chronological order. It is also fun that you have a first impression of a narrator when they are a minor character (Antoinette Conway for me) in a previous book, and then you are suddenly introduced to the different facets of their personality—a very enjoyable experience. I would always recommend starting with In the Woods for the ‘Tana French vibes’ or Broken Harbour for a book that leaves you with no peace until you devour it.

 
My personal list follows.
 

Tips for the best reading experience:

The standalones might appeal more to the Tana French fans. For a newbie, I would recommend starting with one among the Dublin Murder Squad series.

The Likeness is the sequel to In the Woods, so it makes more sense if you read them together. You might feel a disconnect if you pick up The Likeness before being introduced to the friendly (and tense) camaraderie between Maddox and Ryan in In the Woods. Also the backstory of why Maddox decides to move from the Dublin Murder Squad and her history with Ryan would come in useful while reading The Likeness.

 

My favourite Tana French books:

The Dublin Murder Squad series (‘big long bastards’ as Tana French describes them) would be the best place to start with Tana French books. Here are my favourites aka the (my) definitive list of Tana French books:

 

#1 and #2

On even days I love Broken Harbour and on odd days I am more of an In the Woods girl. No kidding. I love them both, and cannot pick one. I loved Broken Harbour for the way it makes me jump in my skin, and I loved In the Woods for its characteristic Tana French-iness. As I write this, there’s a tiny voice at the back of my head whispering maybe I love Broken Harbour the best. But these two are definitely on my re-read list.

#3 The Likeness for the way undercover life and real life began to blur for Detective Maddox and also because by the end of In the Woods, you simply need to know more about her.

#4 Faithful Place for the messy family drama intertwined with the mystery.

#5 The Secret Place for the teenage girls who are determined to lie and keep their secrets safe and a struggling detective who doesn’t know whether to trust his instincts.

#6 The Trespasser for the way I began to understand Antoinette Conway and she transformed from a fictional character to a real person in front of my eyes.

#7 The Searcher for the way the book made me feel, as if I was walking through the bogs in Ireland.

#8 The Witch Elm remains my least memorable among the lot.

 
I hope you enjoy the books and find your favourite Tana French novel. Happy reading!
 
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