Columns > Published on November 5th, 2020

Don’t Miss Out: A Tana French Primer

Do you ever feel like you’re screaming something at the top of your lungs but no one is hearing you? That’s how I feel about Tana French. I just keep telling and telling people how amazing she is, and people nod and walk away. I’m not telling y’all for my benefit. READ HER. She is the most talented author I’ve ever read, any genre, any time. Read. Tana. French.

I’ll help get you started. She has eight novels out so far, all of which are well worth reading. Here is their publication order:

  1. In the Woods
  2. The Likeness
  3. Faithful Place
  4. Broken Harbor
  5. The Secret Place
  6. The Trespasser
  7. The Witch Elm
  8. The Searcher

And here is my ranking of how much I love them:

  1. The Secret Place
  2. Broken Harbor
  3. The Searcher
  4. The Likeness
  5. The Trespasser
  6. Faithful Place
  7. The Witch Elm
  8. In the Woods

A few of them are chronologically relevant to one other, but not so much so that you can’t still pick up any one of them and dive right in. So I’m going to give quick impressions of each below (blurbs are linked on Amazon), so you can figure out where to start.

1. "The Searcher"

The Searcher is French’s newest, and it's exceptionally good. It’s a logical place for new readers to start because it’s a stand-alone, so you don’t have to worry about order. It is a little different than her overall “norm,” but I’ll probably end up saying that about most of her books, because although there’s a strong cohesion among her work, French doesn’t repeat like some series authors tend to. The Searcher, rather than featuring an active Irish detective, features a retired American detective who’s moved to Ireland. This book is funny, sad, atmospheric, and emotionally gripping. Despite being reserved in the action department, I couldn’t read it fast enough.

Get The Searcher at Bookshop or Amazon

 

2. "Broken Harbor"

Broken Harbor happens to be the first French I picked up, and it hit me like an arrow to the heart. My god, I love this book. It’s a mystery/crime/thriller, but it treads so close to horror that I think you could make an excellent argument for re-shelving. Broken Harbor creeped me out so hard I had trouble sleeping two nights in a row. That hasn’t happened for me since I was a teen reading The Shining. The atmosphere alone makes this one a true masterpiece.

Get Broken Harbor at Bookshop or Amazon

 

3. "The Likeness"

The Likeness was an incredible journey. This one, about an undercover detective pretending to be an unrelated woman who looked exactly like her, wrapped me in surrealism that felt so real I started questioning my own state of mind. This has strong vibes of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, but frankly I like it more. The danger of a close-knit group of friends who live on the boundaries of society. A detective infiltrating that. Just… *chef’s kiss*

Get The Likeness at Bookshop or Amazon

 

4. "Faithful Place"

Faithful Place is an interesting one to me, because I wasn’t so wild about it as I was reading it (but I mean that on a Tana French scale, which still means I loved it), but afterwards this one has stuck with me quite powerfully. The main character Frank is so memorable that I still feel like I know him personally, and it’s been a long time since I read it. It’s worth reading as a character study, if nothing else, but there is far more than that.

Get Faithful Place at Bookshop or Amazon

 

5. "The Secret Place"

The Secret Place is my favorite French, and one of my favorite books. I’ve read it twice and will read it again. We see Frank again, and another incredibly memorable character from a different book, Antoinette. Of all of her books, this one feels the most like a ‘departure’ to me. In this story about four friends woven with that of two detectives, adult reality and childhood fantasy blend and merge and test the bounds of speculative fiction. This book absolutely shimmers with magic. It nails girlhood, womanhood, friendship, and growing up. It’s emotional, gorgeous, real, powerful, and still takes my breath away when I think about it.

Get The Secret Place at Bookshop or Amazon

 

6. "The Trespasser"

Antoinette, mentioned above, is another character I can’t forget or shake off. She’s amazing. The plot of The Trespasser feels a bit more forgettable to me, but the protagonist more than makes up for it. If you like flawed characters realistically drawn, you’ll love Antoinette.

Get The Trespasser at Bookshop or Amazon

 

7. "The Witch Elm"

Speaking of flawed characters, The Witch Elm is probably one of the last of French’s books I’d start someone out on, mostly because it’s sure to rub some the wrong way. It's yet another departure (I knew that would happen) due to the protagonist being a suspect rather than a detective, and is the epitome of “flawed characters.” The Witch Elm reads more as a literary skewering of privilege than it does a true mystery, and while I found it powerful and well worth my time, it isn’t the same vibe as most of French’s work, so if you’re brand new I’d start elsewhere to get a true taste.

Get The Witch Elm at Bookshop or Amazon

 

8. "In the Woods"

Also quite polarizing, although it was the debut that launched a very successful career, In the Woods got mixed reviews due to its unresolved ending. I think it’s fair to want answers at the end of a mystery novel, but I also don’t think this is purely a mystery novel, so expectations surely play a large role in how this book is received. What I remember most is the relationship between the two lead detectives, and how it got me in the feels. This book is certainly enough to see French’s exquisite talent, but might or might not suck you in all the way if you’re new to her. But then again, many absolutely raved over it. YMMV.

Get In the Woods at Bookshop or Amazon


If you like Gillian Flynn, you’ll probably like Tana French. If you like Sarah Waters, you’ll probably like Tana French. If you like Donna Tartt, you’ll probably like Tana French. If you like talented writers who balance entertainment and meaning, who weave prose like it’s poetry, who render humanity with blade-sharp precision, who make you think and laugh and shiver, who take incredible scenarios and make you buy in as if it were really happening, you’ll like Tana French. So stop waiting. Go read Tana French.

Am I the only fan in the room? It seems like so few people have read this amazing author. Have you read any Tana French yet? If so, which was your favorite? If not, which will you start with?

About the author

Annie Neugebauer likes to make things as challenging as possible for herself by writing horror, poetry, literary, and speculative fiction—often blended together in ways ye olde publishing gods have strictly forbidden. She’s a two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated author with work appearing and forthcoming in more than a hundred publications, including magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Apex, and Black Static, as well as anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 3 & 4 and #1 Amazon bestsellers Killing It Softly and Fire. She’s an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and in addition to LitReactor, a columnist for Writer Unboxed. She’s represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. She needs to make new friends because her current ones are tired of hearing about House of Leaves. You can visit her at AnnieNeugebauer.com for news, poems, organizational tools for writers, and more.

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