‘The Witch Elm’ review: Tana French breaks from her usual detective series

The Dublin-based crime fiction novelist Tana French has always been unconventional for her genre. Her six previous books all deal with the Dublin Murder Squad, but each follows a different detective. No serial star a la Philip Marlowe or V.I. Warshawski for her, thanks very much.

With her new novel, "The Witch Elm," French has again flipped the script, focusing not on those who solve crimes but on the victim of one.

Toby is severely beaten during a burglary at his flat and moves in with his dying uncle, at the family’s ancestral home, Ivy House.

French has always focused on places, whether the seemingly idyllic Whitethorn House where Cassie Maddox goes undercover or the hardscrabble Faithful Place where Frank Mackey grew up. But Ivy House dominates in a way those memorable locales did not, trapping readers inside for nearly all the book’s action, swapping the engrossing and resonant Irish ambience of her other works for a bland set of rooms that could be anywhere.

Even more isolating than Ivy House is Toby’s mind. The first third of the book is nothing but him: recounting his attack, detailing weeks of recovery, hinting at events to come and wishing again and again that things had gone differently.

Finally a skull is found in the titular elm, prompting a murder investigation that revives the plot a bit. The family’s interactions with detectives on the case remind readers that French is an incredibly gifted crime writer.

In the end, however, this is Toby’s story, and there is just too much of him. His injuries become an easy excuse for character development, and his personal relationships are simply baffling at times. Even a twist or two at the end can’t raise this book to the heights of its excellent predecessors.