Well first things first, don't go into this expecting the Dublin Murder Squad. This is a standalone by Tana French. We do get detectives in this one, but one wonders if the next book will follow the squad again and if this story will be discussed on the periphery. This not being a Dublin Murder squad book is not why I gave this three stars though. The story told her is disjointed (purposely due to Toby's injuries) but if it was just that it may have worked. I think the biggest issue I had was the way that Toby finds out the truth (during the world's most boring info-dump) and then the ending that made zero sense after a while.
"The Witch Elm" told in the first person, follows Toby who is a bright eyed and bushy tailed 28 year old guy in PR at a small art gallery. He is in a long-term happy relationship with his girlfriend Melissa and he has two best friends. Deciding to skip going to his girlfriend's house one night after being out with his two best friends causes Toby's life to twist into something new. Going home causes him to fall asleep and then wake to two men burglarizing his apartment. Toby decides to fight back and is beaten almost to death. When he wakes he finds out he is going to need time to recover. However, Toby post burglary is different. He can barely stand to be touched, he picks fights with his mother, he can barely even be around his girlfriend. When his cousin tells him that their Uncle Hugo is dying of an inoperable cancer she asks that Toby go stay with him and help him. Toby and Melissa go and stay with Hugo, and things at times seem to be getting better until a skull is found in Hugo's back garden in a witch elm tree. FYI, they spell witch wych throughout the book and it kept throwing me every time.
Toby reminds me on the surface level of Rob from "Into the Woods." Two male characters who don't recollect huge pockets of their lives. Rob was left scarred by what happened to him in the woods. He never does recall what happened and French gives no hint what fate befell his two friends. Rob doesn't truly recover from his childhood and in the end because he didn't want to face things, he ruined his career and his friendship with his ex-partner Cassie.
Toby is in PR for an art gallery and things are going okay for him, though he's quite lucky he wasn't fired from his job after his boss caught him in a lie about an artist. Going out drinking with his two friends, Sean and Dec he is giddy with relief about not being fired and getting away with what he has done. There at the beginning we are given glimpses into Toby. A 28 year old guy who doesn't seem to realize that his actions have true consequences. He sees his best friend Dec as being jealous of him and feeling terrible because of his background. He never sees that he should grow up and think about others around him. After the burglary we see Toby change, but often at times while reading this I wondered how much he truly changed. He had physical difficulties, but the same cluelessness that seemed to be in him from the time he was a kid was still there as an adult. I don't think that I liked him much in retrospect. When Toby starts playing detective it really doesn't make a lot of sense to me as a reader. And Toby doesn't find out things by investigating, he just gets people drunk or high and starts asking questions. I don't know, something was missing from this book that I get from the Dublin Murder Squad books.
The other characters don't really jibe that well in this one either. Melissa works better than most of the other secondary characters. I just thought Toby dismisses her throughout the story, though he's painted as being very in love with her.
Toby's family felt a bit confusing to me at first. I honestly needed a chart after we do get to meet all of them. I wish that we had more details about Uncle Hugo. Considering what a huge role this character had to play due to Toby staying at this home, his parts that focused on genealogy felt a bit off at times. Susana and Leo are developed a bit more, but in the end what we know of them doesn't work the whole way when you think about the ending.
As I said above we do get detectives in this one, actually two sets. The first we meet due to Toby's attack, and the next due to the police being called after the skull is found in the witch elm tree. The detectives don't work for me throughout this book. The ones investigating Toby's burglary and beating seemed like an after thought and joke The ones investigating the probable murder didn't seem very solid to me.
The writing was okay, I just though the story after a while started to get disjointed. Due to Toby's memory issue a lot of times things are just being told to him. I just wish that there was another way besides constant information dumps to have Toby find out something. And then in the end we do have him remember something and it absolutely didn't even make sense why he would remember this one incident after everything else was a black hole.
The flow was up and down throughout the book.
The setting of the book takes place at Toby's paternal family's home called "The Ivy House". Honestly I wonder why the book wasn't just called that. The home sounded very real and about 90 percent of the book takes place at this location.
The ending as I already said doesn't work for me. Maybe if French had changed the ending (cannot get into it without spoilers) it would have worked for me. It just all felt a bit too far fetched to me. And as I said above, it doesn't help that Toby reminded me of Rob.