Up in the air

Only Dick Francis could combine horses and air travel in such a fascinating way

cover image of book Rat Race.

The most amazing thing about Rat Race, a 1970 mystery written by Dick Francis, is that it isn’t the only horse-racing mystery that Francis set in the world of aviation. Flying Finish, published four years earlier, delved into the world of long-distance horse transport. In both my 1980s-era paperback and a brand-new ebook edition of Rat Race by Canelo, there is an introduction from Francis explaining how the story came to be. His wife Mary figures prominently, as she apparently got so absorbed in researching the details of flying taxis that she took flying lessons and became a pilot herself. The Francises even had their own flying taxi service for a while before they sold out to a competitor.

Francis often publicly acknowledged the extensive research assistance that his wife did, to the extent that some people suspect she actually wrote the books. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know the care the Francises took to detail the specifics of various professions is one of the things that make reading Francis’ mysteries such a pleasure for me. Rat Race is no exception.

As I said, this book was originally published in 1970 and it shows in the cultural descriptions, in particular a hippie character named Chanter, who sprinkles around a generous helping of “man”s and disdain for authority as he’s casually groping the female love interest and railing against the establishment. Thankfully, he’s limited to two brief appearances, so don’t let him turn you off from this groovy story, man.

Matt Shore is a pilot. Once among the best in his profession, flying for B.O.A.C. (one of the forerunners of the current British Airways), Shore’s career has been on a bit of a downward spiral and he’s been reduced to working for a ramshackle flying taxi service that is barely keeping its wings above water. He’s depressed and keeps himself shut off from the world, until he is blasted — literally — out of his apathy when a bomb explodes on the plane he had been piloting just minutes earlier. It is seemingly only through the merest chance that Matt and his passengers — the top steeplechase jockey in Britain, a respected former Army Major, and an iron-glove woman trainer — escape serious injury. But accidents keep happening, and Matt realizes he needs to figure out where the danger is coming from before his career and his life both go up in smoke.

I remember when I first read this one ages ago, I was fascinated by the glimpse into the world of private aircraft. I think all of the experience that Mary Francis acquired in her research lends a nice air of authenticity. Of course, aviation technology has changed so much over the past 40-odd years that some of the dilemmas Matt faces probably wouldn’t happen today, but it hardly mattered to my enjoyment of the story.

The way Francis managed to meticulously and believably depict such a variety of different professions while maintaining a connection to the world of horses at the core of each book he wrote is remarkable. Plots set exclusively within the horse-racing scene so familiar to former jockey Francis would likely have grown stale in short order, but Francis deftly shows the reader how that industry closely interacts with so many other aspects of ordinary life. It’s always a pleasure to re-visit one of these old favorites.

You could look it up

Kory Stamper Shares Her Love For Language in the Delightful ‘Word by Word’

Every last syllable of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (Pantheon Books, 2017) is utterly delightful. You should seek it out and read it immediately. The End.

cover image for Word by Word book.

OK, that’s not much of a review. Let’s try again.

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, which means, essentially, that she and her colleagues write the dictionary. She’s long been one of my favorite word-nerd Twitter follows (@KoryStamper), because she is smart and profanely witty and even more in love with language than I am. More than once, as she has shared some wry observation about the lexicographical life, I’ve thought, “Man, that would be my dream job.” And now, she’s written a book for all of us who have ever wondered, “How on earth do you write a dictionary, exactly?”

Stamper cleverly constructed the book as a series of chapters, each focused on one particular dictionary word. But she uses a word’s story to tell her own, in the process highlighting all the aspects of lexicography that go far beyond writing definitions. The word “but” is the jumping-off point to discuss how grammar figures into dictionary writing, and the tremendous difficulty sometimes of pinning down just what part of speech a particular usage of a particular word actually is — and how none of that is what most people mean when they talk about grammar:

To them, “grammar” is a loose conglomeration of stylistic word choices that get codified into right and wrong, misspellings that every English speaker has made at some point in their life and yet are branded as “bad grammar,” half-remembered “rules” about usage shamed into them by their middle-school English teachers, and personal, sometimes irrational dislikes. This is the grammar that shows up on Internet memes about “your” and “you’re,” the sort of grammar people are referring to when they claim you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, the grammar that is invoked when people claim that the “10 items or less” sign at the grocery store is “bad grammar.”

Kory Stamper, Word by Word

That excerpt probably gives you a clue that Stamper is — as indeed are all lexicographers and the dictionaries they create — descriptionist rather than prescriptionist. Despite years of claims to the contrary (including the marketing materials of those self-same dictionaries!) the purpose of a dictionary is to describe and define language as it is being used by ordinary people right now, not to settle bets or teach anyone the One True Way. A similar message is conveyed in the chapter about “it’s,” wherein I learned that in fact the possessive and plural forms of that word were pretty much interchangeable for hundreds of years, including in the King James Bible and much of Shakespeare.

Other chapters use a specific word as the basis for illuminating the myriad tasks that a lexicographer performs every day: searching written materials to find new citations for new words as well as new ways of using old words; the tricky considerations that go into defining the word “surfboard,” which seems deceptively obvious until you try to pin it down; how small, ordinary words like “take” and “set” are the hardest to pin down because they have so many senses and subtleties of meaning (Stamper refers to them as “semantically oozy”). 

A chapter on revising the entry for “bitch” expands into a discussion of how dictionaries treat words that are considered vulgar or derogatory, and the problems that arise when not everyone agrees that certain words or sub-senses of words deserve to be labeled as such (including the problem that the majority of the people making those calls are still older white men of relative privilege who have not experienced having those words hurled at them in very personal ways).

But wait! There’s more! There are also chapters on the challenges of nailing down a word’s etymology, and how a good anecdote (“posh” is shorthand for “port out, starboard home”) is no substitute for actual documentation; the never-ending search to find the earliest known written use of each word; and the tricky business of conveying pronunciation that can accommodate dialect differences (this is why dictionaries use phonemic alphabets so that the letter i is pronounced like the vowel in pin, whatever that may sound like in your dialect). Again Stamper makes the point that the dictionary’s focus is on describing usage, not judging right and wrong.

The final chapter details how all hell broke loose in 2009, when some evangelicals noticed that the dictionary had added a sub-sense to the word “marriage” that described relationships between people of the same sex. (That the definition had changed six years earlier with no one noticing did not stem the outrage.) It’s a thoughtful intro to discussion of how people often get very angry about specific dictionary entries because they feel the dictionary is instigating societal changes that make them uncomfortable instead of simply describing how society has already changed. 

I no longer have any illusions that being a lexicographer is like getting to have ice cream for breakfast every day. It seems now to be a difficult, demanding, and rewarding endeavor that requires skills that go beyond just “loving words”. Loving words is definitely a prerequisite, though, and this book will give you an even greater appreciation of the nutty ways that English has developed and evolved over the centuries. If I had my life to live over, I could think of much worse ways to spend it than writing a dictionary.

Big things come in small packages

a family tragedy of the american west

Montana 1948 (Milkweek, 2007) is a story of sibling rivalry, the malleability of the criminal justice system when it’s applied to people of color, the internal struggles that we all experience when it feels like the only way to do the right thing is by doing the wrong thing. The spare prose and the slender size of the book make the complex depth of the characters all the more astonishing.

Cover image of Montana 1948

David Hayden is 12 years old in 1948, when his family’s housekeeper, a Native American woman named Marie Little Feather, becomes ill and is later found dead in her room at the Hayden house. The truth about what happened to her, and the repercussions of both the original acts and the subsequent reactions, tear apart the Hayden family in painful and irrevocable ways.

Watson has a way with evocative description that made me feel as if I had once visited the small Montana town where the Haydens lived, in the High Plains eastern part of the state. And his rendering of Adult David’s thoughts about the events of that long-ago summer made me feel as if I was right there in his head, looking back on my own memories:

… the sound of breaking glass, the odor of rotting vegetables. … I offer these images in the order in which they occurred, yet the events that produced these sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequence seems wrong. Imagine instead a movie screen divided into boxes and panels, each with its own scene, so that one moment can occur simultaneously with another, so that no action has to fly off in time, so nothing happens before or after, only during. That’s the way these images coexist in my memory, like the Sioux picture calendars in which the whole year’s event are painted on the same buffalo hide, or like a tapestry with every scene woven into the same cloth, every moment on the same flat plane, the summer of 1948 …

Larry Watson

Watson effectively uses the first-person perspective of an adult David looking back on this time in his life. While grown-up David occasionally adds some big-picture perspective and hindsight, he’s also careful to emphasize his younger self’s bafflement at some of the secrets and discussion that he overhears. He calls himself naïve for a boy of 12, and I think he would be in today’s culture, but I suspect many 1948-era 12-year-olds would seem rather immature to today’s tweens.

I suggested this book to my real-life book club as part of our criminal justice theme. (I first read it in 2015 but didn’t review it then and didn’t remember enough to feel comfortable leading a discussion without re-reading.) The other books we’ve read for this theme include The Green Mile by Stephen King, Minority Report by Philip K. Dick, A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. That last book is without doubt a book every American should read, but Watson’s minor masterpiece just might be my favorite. 

Will no one rid me of this troublesome brother-in-law?

Christopher Buckley serves up slapstick political intrigue in ‘The Judge Hunter’

Samuel Pepys has a problem. The incessant diarist of the 17th century has successfully negotiated himself into a position of minor power in the Restoration government of King Charles II after having inconveniently supported Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads in the overthrow of Charles I. Life would be reasonably tolerable if not for his wife’s brother, Balthasar, a ne’er-do-well content to sponge off Pepys as a more appealing alternative to getting and keeping a job. If only Sam could find some way of getting Balty out of his life and his purse!

The answer to Pepys’ prayers, at least in the pages of Christopher Buckley’s latest satirical novel (Simon & Schuster, 2018), seems to come when he stumbles upon a plan to send Balty to the American Colonies on a vague quest to search for two judges who were responsible for condemning Charles I to execution. Once landed in the Massachusetts colony, Balty is taken under the wing of one Hiram Huncks, who is ostensibly going to help Balty find the judges but may have his own agenda.

Buckley is a master at historical satire, weaving comedic hijinks throughout an otherwise historically faithful account. Between yuks in The Judge Hunter, he delivers plenty of solid history about the founders of the American colonies, whether English or Dutch. The severe Puritans who founded the Massachusetts colony are reliably skewered, as are the even stricter sect that split for Connecticut when they thought Massachusetts was getting a little too loosey-goosey (narrator: they were not), and the Quakers who refused to renounce their faith despite severe persecution. I learned more about the second Anglo-Dutch War (truthfully, I’m not sure I even remembered there had been a first one) than I ever learned in school. “Excerpts” from Pepys’ famous diary are scattered throughout the narrative, and it was nice to have confirmation in the afterword that all but one or two were entirely made up. Too bad, because Buckley almost had me convinced to tackle the many-volumed classic work.

At the outset, I was concerned that Buckley was serving up too heavy a dose of slapstick, which would rapidly wear thin. Happily, as the plot progresses the characters acquire some more substantial traits than mere deliverers or receivers of punch lines, giving the overall work a pleasant depth.

The Judge Hunter is a worthy follow-up to Buckley’s first historical satire, The Relic Master, which set its skewed sights on the 16th century trade in saints’ remains. Buckley has stated his intention to continue the series with books set in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Based on past performance, those will be worth keeping an eye out for.

Exploring the science of grief

‘Lost and wanted’ is a modern ghost story

How are we supposed to feel when we learn of the death of a friend who had slowly drifted out of our day-to-day life? As Nell Freudenberger shows in her latest novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), it’s complicated. Helen Clapp and Charlotte “Charlie” Boyce were as close as it is possible for two people to be when they were students at Harvard despite being as different as chalk and cheese. Helen is a studious science nerd from a white working-class family; Charlie’s academic interests lay in French literature, and she is supermodel-level gorgeous, the only child in an affluent African-American family. After college, they drifted apart: Helen stayed in academia, eventually landing at MIT as a professor of physics; Charlie moved to L.A. to work as a television producer, where she married a surfer dude and had a daughter. Helen remained single but had a son via sperm donor.

Busy with their respective careers on opposite coasts, Helen and Charlie haven’t spoken for some time when Helen unexpectedly gets a cryptic text message from Charlie. Before she has a chance to follow up on this unexpected communication, Charlie’s husband calls to tell her that Charlie has died — before the text message was sent. What’s going on here?

That question seems as though it will be the heart of a modern-day ghost story, but in the end the answer is less important than what Helen learns about herself, about friendship, and about grief. As she struggles to process her emotions and remembers the high and low points of her and Charlie’s friendship, Helen expresses herself using the language she is most comfortable with: physics. I really struggled with these bits, as I have the most rudimentary of science knowledge. I still felt able to enjoy the story but I’m sure someone who could relate to the scientific concepts would feel a much deeper connection.

Once I gave myself permission to stop trying to make the scientific connections, I came to realize that Helen’s frequent retreats into scientific analogy were a way to distance herself from the intensity of her feelings. With that insight, I found myself absorbed in Helen’s journey of re-discovery. The ways in which she interacts with the people around her who also knew Charlie felt completely organic, and her need to re-interpret her memories of Charlie through the lens of new information learned after her death was compelling. As Helen muses at Charlie’s memorial service, “… love was particular even though it was directed at the same person, that we hadn’t lost just one Charlie but as many as the number of people who were seated here today.”

Readers who expect a modern-day ghost story based on the initial setup may be disappointed, but Freudenberger’s meditation on connection and loss should resonate even with those of us without a firm grasp of quantum mechanics.

Fairy tales

book covers of Uprooted and Spinning Silver both written by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik makes old stories new again

I first got hooked on Naomi Novik’s fantastic (in all senses of the word) writing with His Majesty’s Dragon, an imaginative novel whose plot could most succinctly be described as “The Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.” That book bloomed into an eventual nine-book series; though I read all of them out of affection for the primary dragon character Temeraire and his human comrade Will Laurence, the first tells a complete and utterly satisfying tale.

A few years ago, when I found that Novik had published a new book outside of the Temeraire universe, I was intrigued. That book was Uprooted (Del Rey, 2015), and it’s a magical (again, in all senses of the word) story about the age-old battle between good and evil.

Ever since she was a small child, Agnieszka has known that one girl child from her birth year will be chosen by the Dragon, the valley’s resident (human) wizard, to be his companion for 10 years. Every girl who has been so chosen has ended up leaving the valley forever when her service is over, and the younger girls live in dread of leaving their famlies never to return. At least Agnieszka can take comfort in the fact that everyone expects the Dragon to choose her best friend Kasia, the most beautiful girl in the valley, when the day comes.

You see where this is going, right? The Dragon chooses Agnieszka to come live in his tower, to everyone’s surprise and seemingly against his own will. Once there, she makes a mess of everything the Dragon tries to teach her, until she discovers (to her shock) that she herself is capable of performing magic, though she doesn’t understand how it works or how to control it. She’s soon called upon to use her newfound power in a series of adventures to save Kasia, the valley, and the kingdom’s Queen, who has been trapped in the evil Wood for decades. But the powerful forces at work threaten to destroy not only Agnieszka and her beloved home valley but the kingdom itself if she and the Dragon aren’t able to root out and destroy the source of the evil once and for all.

I loved this book, which has strong elements of classic Eastern European fairy tales (the author thanks her Polish grandmother for telling her the stories of Baba Jaga throughout her childhood). One of the most enjoyable elements was that despite the familiarity of many elements of the story, the ways in which Novik employs them felt fresh and unpredictable. The action is episodic and yet builds elegantly on itself in a way that feels completely organic. The characters were suitably appealing or hateful as required, and the evil appropriately menacing and merciless. I was a bit concerned when the epic Battle to End All Battles ended with a chunk of book left to read, but Novik provided a suitable coda that didn’t feel tacked on or anticlimactic as so many do.

As perfect as I found Uprooted, I was a little bit leery when I saw Spinning Silver (Del Rey, 2018) on the shelf last year. It’s not a sequel, but it follows in the same vein of offering a new take on an old fairy tale — in this case, the story of Rumpelstiltskin, who helped a miller’s daughter spin straw into gold in exchange for her firstborn child. At the center of Novik’s version is Miryem, a young Jewish girl who is forced to take over the family’s money-lending business from her father, a man too kindhearted to earn enough money to support his family. Miryem learns how to be tough but fair to the villagers who seek her help, and manages to succeed beyond mere subsistence.

It seems to be a more-or-less idyllic life until word of her success spreads beyond the village, and Miryem is commanded by the king of the fairy people to turn silver into gold, upon threat of death. What the silver signifies, why the Staryk need so much gold, and how Miryem will walk the tightrope between two worlds is magic all its own in Novik’s hands. I loved the way Novik ties together the storylines of three unusual women: Besides Miryem, we also meet Wanda, a village girl who comes to work for Miryem’s family to pay off her abusive father’s debts, and Irina, daughter of the local duke who finds herself in a dangerous marriage. Each of the women faces her own demons, but they all must come together if any of them are to survive.

I don’t want to say much more, because every reader deserves to discover the delights hidden between these two covers for themselves, but suffice to say that my fears were unfounded. Spinning Silver is more than a worthy follow-up to Uprooted, and both deserve a place on the shelf of any reader who still believes in fairy tales.

A window into a isolated world

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books, 2010)

book cover of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I’ve lost my notes on which friend first recommended this to me many years ago, but I owe them my thanks. The first time you pick it up, you might think you will speed through this lovely little (just 120 pages) book, but if you are like me you will find yourself deliberately slowing down to savor Bailey’s luminous prose and gentle but keen insights into the natural world — as exemplified by the common woodland snail who takes up residence alongside the author during a year of her life when illness keeps her completely bedridden. Here’s a sample:

Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

The little snail who so preoccupies Bailey’s attention is first brought to her inside a pot of wild violets from a friend. At first, she frets about being responsible for the snail when she cannot care for herself without help. It doesn’t take her long to realize that when you are so ill that even sitting up in bed is an impossible task without help, being able to focus attention on something that lives at a similar pace can distract you from your own loneliness and isolation.

Along the way, Bailey turns her attention to exploring the changes — physical, mental, emotional — her illness has wrought in her.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats and whens and their impossibly distant kin, how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive.

I’ll be the first to admit that I never gave much thought at all to snails beyond the restaurant scene in the movie Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts sends an escargot flying across a posh dining room. Bailey provides a surprising amount of factual data about snails in her little book; you might think it would be too much except that in Bailey’s hands it becomes compelling. (One of the first things I did when finishing the book was to fire up the internets and check out some images of snails, since I don’t think I had ever really looked at one before. They really are quite interesting little critters.)

The final jewels in the book’s crown are the epigrams that open each chapter. It turns out that the most astonishing variety of writers have contemplated the lowly snail far more than I ever had. Charles Darwin was not a surprise, of course, but Patricia Highsmith?! It turns out the masterful author of psychological thrillers like The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels wrote not one but two short stories about snails! (Of course, being Patricia Highsmith, one of the stories is about giant carnivorous snails.) I’m tempted to raid the library in hopes of discovering more literary gold carried on the backs of this unassuming creature.

Abe Lincoln had the write stuff

From the start, he needed to overcome internal and external opposition by willful acts of self-definition, the ambitious farm boy autodidact becoming a splitter of words and ideas rather than fence rails.

Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

I’m having trouble writing this review because I have so much to say. I tried channeling the 16th President by asking myself WWAW (What Would Abe Write)? That didn’t help much, so I’ll just boil it down to one sentence: This book (published by HarperCollins in 2008) is fantastic.

OK, maybe a few more sentences. As the title declares, Kaplan examines Lincoln’s life through the prism of the writings he left behind. Those writings include not only published essays and speeches but also letters and fragments of letters he wrote to friends. Kaplan begins in Lincoln’s childhood, looking at the books that we know young Abe had access to at home, especially once his stepmother joined the household. Some of them are familiar and unsurprising — Shakespeare, the Bible — and others raised my eyebrows. Lord Byron was a favorite source of inspiration for Lincoln, as was … Scottish poet Robert Burns?! Apparently Lincoln often quoted entire poems or long passages of Burns’ poems from memory, even the saucy bits.

cover image of book

It was fascinating to learn that Lincoln wrote on all sorts of topics, not just political events and issues of the day. Following a trip in 1844 to his childhood home in Indiana, he wrote what appears to have been intended as a four-canto poem in the tradition of Thomas Gray, whose “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was a favorite of Lincoln. Kaplan also cites influences from Wordsworth, Burns and Chaucer in the poem, only three cantos of which have survived. The excerpts that Kaplan quotes are melancholic and humorous in turn, reflecting on memories that gave him both pain and pleasure.

Lincoln also used writing as a way to explore his thinking on subjects of the day. He wrote and re-wrote, constantly refining his thoughts. He used writing as a way to help him clarify his own beliefs and political opinions. And he seldom spoke extemporaneously — at a minimum he worked from a set of notes for each speech he gave, in order to ensure that he could lay out his thoughts and positions in a coherent way. Kaplan describes Lincoln’s writing in a speech given to a temperance society as “a prose so lucid to read it is like looking a hundred feet through clear water.”

Kaplan expends most of his energy and analysis to the years before Lincoln became president; in an eight-chapter book the presidency is entirely confined to the final chapter. That’s one reason I can’t view this book as the end-all and be-all of exploring Lincoln’s life or his genius for language. The other reason is that while partial quotations of Lincoln’s writing to illustrate specific points are plentiful, Kaplan does not include any speech or essay in its entirety to allow us to fully absorb Lincoln’s genius. Perhaps there are limitations on the amount of text that can legally be quoted? At any rate, it was a loss I felt keenly.

I probably don’t need to say that I highly recommend this book. While there’s a fair amount of detail about Lincoln’s life beyond his writing, some readers will find value in also reading a more comprehensive biography, especially one that focuses on his presidency. As for me, I now feel a great deal of affinity for the man who declared:

Writing — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it — great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. … Its utility may be conceived by the reflection that to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it.

Abraham Lincoln

Reality is not a linear construct

In Tana French’s The Witch Elm, the reader is left to wonder:
If you don’t remember something, did it really happen?

Last year, Tana French stepped away from her acclaimed Dublin Murder Squad series with a stand-alone literary mystery (published by Viking) that is less a conventional whodunit than an extended riff on the vagaries of memory and the mutability of character and personality. Toby is a 20-something social media manager for a Dublin art gallery when he suffers a traumatic brain injury during a robbery. Even after his physical injuries have healed, he struggles with anxiety and his lack of memory of the attack. In an attempt to re-focus his attention outward, he and his girlfriend Melissa move into Ivy House as companions to his favorite uncle, Hugo, who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. When a dead man is discovered on the property, the family has to cope with police intrusion and the veil of suspicion that falls on all of them.

Toby comes across as a classic unreliable narrator — but is he really? Is he hiding things from the reader, or are things hidden from both the reader and himself by his own brain? If you don’t remember something, did it really happen? And who do you believe when you’re presented with alternate versions of events that you were involved in but cannot remember for yourself? It’s a fascinating puzzle, and French explores all the nuances as the answer to the murder mystery is slowly uncovered.

When I originally reviewed this book, I was ambivalent about the ending, mainly in terms of certain characters not behaving in ways that were consistent with how they had presented throughout the novel. Shortly afterward, I found a terrific interview with Tana French on the always thought-provoking site Electric Lit. The article’s title, Tana French’s The Witch Elm Is an Exploration of White Male Privilege, is perhaps inevitable in the #MeToo era, but French’s central thesis is more nuanced than that headline suggests. As she says about conceiving the novel’s plot, “Mainly, I was thinking about the connection between luck and empathy. If we’ve been too lucky in one area of life, that can stunt our ability to empathize with people who haven’t been that lucky.” I’ve been guilty of this myself, assuming that because I found certain college classes easy that anyone who didn’t wasn’t trying hard enough. Not a good look, that!

I’ve enjoyed all of French’s books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, but this book’s standalone status isn’t a letdown in any way. As regular readers of French know, the DMS series does not follow the same cast of characters throughout. Each book places a different detective at the center of the story, with their colleagues whom we’ve come to know in previous books appearing in passing or not at all. For me, that’s one of the aspects that keeps the series so fresh and lively, but it also means that The Witch Elm doesn’t seem like a big departure. It’s still a murder mystery in Dublin, only told from a point of view outside the police station.

So no, The Witch Elm isn’t technically part of that series, but it shares the genetic code that makes French’s previous work so compelling: A firm grasp on the intricacies of plotting a murder mystery, believable characters (not to be confused with likable, necessarily), and a gift for keen observation and description that bring the settings alive. More real than reality, in some ways. Whatever that may be.