Monday Motivation: Welcome to the Dublin Murder Squad
Here (in a moment) is an early passage from a fabulous new book from Tana French, an American writer who has made Dublin her home. The book I took up and raced through is the sixth in a series set in the Dublin Murder Squad.
I so enjoyed The Trespasser, that I immediately bought the earlier books in the series, and look forward to a December break largely immersed in the vividly created streets of modern Dublin.
Here’s the passage that, in many ways, demonstrates all the qualities of her writing that instantly drew me in:
“Him, and the whispery hum of the computers, and the winter wind idling around the windows: just those, and silence. Murder works out of the grounds of Dublin Castle, smack in the heart of town, but our building is tucked away a few corners from the fancy stuff the tourists come to see, and our walls are thick; even the early morning traffic out on Dame Street only makes it through to us as a soft undemanding hum. The jumbles of paperwork and photos and scribbled notes on people’s desk look like they’re charging up, thrumming with action waiting to happen. Outside the tall sash windows the night is thinning towards a chilled grey; the room smells of coffee and hot radiators. At that hour, if I could overlook all the ways the night shift blows, I could love the squad room.”
Why do I think this is a superb piece of descriptive writing? Let’s go through the various features that struck me.
Firstly, it is a sinuous piece of writing that echoes the rhythms of real speech. That first sentence, lacking a pivotal verb, instantly sets the tone of the rest. It’s a miniature soundscape: there’s the hum of the computers, the edgy murmur of the winter wind… and the silence that defines both.
But the writing’s not fancy, or ostentatious. The murder squad (although, slyly, she says “murder” rather than “murder squad”, which somehow links the investigative service in a complicit relationship with the killers they hunt) is located “smack in the middle” of Dublin.
Having caught the background perfectly, French then goes for the messy details of the squad room: the jumbles of paperwork, and pictures, and scribbles. It’s a still-life – but it thrums with energy about to be discharged.
At the windows, thin, early morning light is bleaching the sky. And the smell of coffee and hot radiators (a particularly evocative sensory combination) completes the sketch.
It’s not a pretty picture she’s painted. But her allegiance, she makes clear in her last sentence, is (well, almost) entirely taken up by this room, and what this room signifies. She could love this room…
And so the description, we realize, is not simply a verbal photograph of a particular place in Dublin – it is a faithful rendering of a relationship between this detective, and her calling. It’s not an unambivalently positive relationship at all. The commitment she refers to in that last line, is a conditional one. If she could only overlook “all the ways the night shift blows” – we’ll later learn that she’s the Murder Squad’s only female member, and is never allowed to forget that – she would love this place.
So what we have here – and what tempted me to invest in all the other books in the series – is a deeply-layered, hard-edged invitation to a story that turns out to be both a sophisticated and subtle psychological thriller as well as a police procedural.
And it provides, in miniature, a masterclass in how to use description to suggest character.