The Witch Elm

A Novel
Trade Paperback

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Named a New York Times Notable Book of 2018 and a Best Book of 2018 by NPR, The New York Times Book Review, Amazon, The Boston Globe, LitHub, Vulture, Slate, Elle, Vox, and Electric Literature

“Tana French’s best and most intricately nuanced novel yet.” —The New York Times

An “extraordinary” (Stephen King) and “mesmerizing” (LA Times) new standalone novel from the master of crime and suspense and author of the forthcoming novel The Searcher.

From the writer who “inspires cultic devotion in readers” (The New Yorker) and has been called “incandescent” by Stephen King, “absolutely mesmerizing” by Gillian Flynn, and “unputdownable” (People) comes a gripping new novel that turns a crime story inside out.

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life—he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden—and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.


“Extraordinary . . . Here’s a things-go-bad story Thomas Hardy could have written in his prime. . . . The book is lifted by French’s nervy, almost obsessive prose. . . . This is good work by a good writer. For the reader, what luck.”
—Stephen King, The New York Times Book Review

“Tana French is at her suspenseful best in The Witch Elm . . . Tana French’s best and most intricately nuanced novel yet . . . She is in a class by herself as a superb psychological novelist . . . French’s heretofore finest novel . . . Get ready for the whiplash brought on by its final twists and turns.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Like all of her novels, it becomes an incisive psychological portrait embedded in a mesmerizing murder mystery. [French] could make a Target run feel tense and revelatory.”
Los Angeles Times

“Like all of French’s novels, The Witch Elm can be swooningly evocative . . . even if Toby isn’t on the Dublin Murder Squad, the events in The Witch Elm spur his great, transformative upheaval. The discovery they force on him revolves around one question: Whose story is this? By the time French is done retooling the mystery form—it seems there’s nothing she can’t make it do, no purpose she can’t make it serve—the answer is clear: hers and hers alone.”
—Laura Miller, Slate

“Ms. French’s new standalone is a stunner. Unapologetically atmospheric, the book is thought-provoking and a pleasure to read at the sentence level. Her suspense and crime elements are done exceptionally well and with great originality.”
—Paula McLain

“Head-spinning. . . French has spun an engrossing meditation on memory, identity, and family. A master of psychological complexity, she toys with the minds of her characters and readers both.”

The Witch Elm, which follows a privileged man whose life gets derailed, is a timely window into what happens when men lose their precious power . . . French’s masterful character study is absolutely riveting and timely.”

“Detail-rich sequences lead to psychological insights and unexpected revelations.”
The Wall Street Journal

“The literary world’s favorite mystery writer.”
—The Cut

“Since bursting onto the mystery scene with her genre-bending 2007 debut In the Woods, Tana French has cemented her reputation as a literary novelist who happens to write about murder.”

“Tana French—she of the lusciously complex sentences, she of the dense and eerie atmospheres—is one of the greatest crime novelists writing today. . . . The Witch Elm is a rich, immersive, and spine-chilling book, because Tana French is great at what she does and she knows how to tell a story. But it’s also a scathing and insightful deconstruction of social privilege, coming from a master of the form at the height of her powers.”

“A crime thriller at the top of its game.”

“Tana French’s new novel is an intriguing blend of whodunit and ‘who am I’ . . . a high priestess of tense, twisty plots . . . the mystery’s resolution is astonishing.”
O, Oprah Magazine

“Spooky. . . . one of the premier voices in contemporary crime fiction . . . The final revelations in Witch are startling . . . a whodunit far more memorable for the why than the who.”
Entertainment Weekly

“French’s alluring storytelling keeps you hooked.”

“French burrows deeply into her victim’s psyche, plucking out his thoughts and presenting them with such elegantly worded descriptions one may think the author has nestled herself in an armchair squarely in Toby’s frontal cortex . . . This one is worth two readings: the first with the constant tightening of the chest that accompanies all of French’s work, the second after the reader can breathe again.”
The Associated Press

“Scratch a bit beneath the surface of The Witch Elm, then, and you’ll find a book that captures the tensions of our current era, which is defined both by identity politics and the backlash against them. Through Toby, the novel offers powerful insight into how luck—which is, often enough, another way of saying privilege—can blind people to the suffering of others, with disastrous consequences.”

“A thrilling novel about privilege, family lore, and perception.”

“The crime writer for people who think they don’t like genre fiction. Her prose is enveloping and intricate, but casually masks its cleverness. She sucks you in with mystery, then unfurls a masterfully rendered, super specific slice of Irish society.”

“Tana French is at the cutting edge of crime fiction, and The Witch Elm pushes its boundaries further.”
The New Republic

“A spellbinding stand-alone novel carefully crafted in her unique, darkly elegant prose style.”

“Prose so smooth you forget about it and just sink right in.”
—Literary Hub

“Exquisitely suspenseful.”

“Tana French’s The Witch Elm is a chilling mystery about the unreliability of memory.”
Real Simple

“You savor the details—the delicious portrayal of crisp fall weather in Ireland—as you race through the pages. . . . A tick-tocking mystery and a fascinating portrayal of memory as a cracked mirror, through which the past can’t quite be seen clearly.”
Seattle Times

“French spins a compelling, twisty plot and maintains an atmosphere of foreboding and paranoia that runs throughout the book . . . games within games as each tries to deflect blame from themselves and onto someone else . . . [but] French has still created a compelling novel of suspense, in which a world that no longer makes sense is the scariest thing of all.”
Providence Journal

“An amazing read from an iconic thriller writer.”
Mystery Tribune

“Fans of [Tana French’s] previous Dublin Murder Squad books will find themselves happily tangled up in her new novel, and ultimately delighted by the deep psychological dive she leads them on.”
Mystery Scene

“Tana French, having tailored psychological suspense to her own voice, demonstrates anew that the solution never fits neatly into the crime-solving order that detective novels demand.”

“Edgar-winner French is at her suspenseful best in this standalone, in which an Irishman, who’s always considered himself a lucky person, has to reassess his past in the light of a gruesome find on the grounds of his family’s ancestral home.”
Publishers Weekly

“The story is compelling, and French is deft in unraveling this book’s puzzles . . . Psychologically intense.”
Kirkus Reviews

“French’s slow-burning, character-driven examination of male privilege is timely, sharp, and meticulously crafted. Recommended for her legions of fans, as well as any readers of literary crime fiction.”
Library Journal



Susanna swooped Sallie onto her hip, grabbed Zach’s arm in the same movement and hustled the pair of them back up the garden, talking firm reassuring bullshit all the way. Sallie was still screaming, the sound jolting with Susanna’s footsteps; Zach had switched to yelling wildly, lunging at the end of Susanna’s arm to get back to us. When the kitchen door slammed behind them, the silence came down over the garden thick as volcanic ash.

The skull lay on its side in the grass, between the camomile patch and the shadow of the wych elm. One of the eyeholes was plugged with a clot of dark dirt and small pale curling roots; the lower jaw gaped in a skewed, impossible howl. Clumps of something brown and matted, hair or moss, clung to the bone.

The four of us stood there in a semicircle, as if we were gathered for some incomprehensible initiation ceremony, waiting for a signal to tell us how to begin. Around our feet the grass was long and wet, bowed under the weight of the morning’s rain.

“That’s,” I said, “that looks human.”

“It’s fake,” Tom said. “Some Halloween thing—”

Melissa said, “I don’t think it’s fake.” I put my arm around her. She brought up a hand to take mine, but absently: all her focus was on the thing.“

Our neighbors put a skeleton out,” Tom said. “Last year. It looked totally real.”

“I don’t think it’s fake.”

None of us moved closer.

“How would a fake skull get in here?” I asked.

“Teenagers messing around,” Tom said. “Throwing it over the wall, orout of a window. How would a real skull get in here?”

“It could be old,” Melissa said. “Hundreds of years, even thousands.And Zach and Sallie dug it up. Or a fox did.”

“It’s fake as fuck,” Leon said. His voice was high and tight and angry; the thing had scared the shit out of him. “And it’s not funny. It could have given someone a heart attack. Stick it in the bin, before Hugo sees it. Get ashovel out of the shed; I’m not touching it.”

Tom took three swift paces forwards, went down on one knee by the thing and leaned in close. He straightened up fast, with a sharp hiss of in‑breath.

“OK,” he said. “I think it’s real.”

“Fuck’s sake,” Leon said, jerking his head upwards. “There’s no way, like literally no possible—”

“Take a look.”

Leon didn’t move. Tom stepped back, wiping his hands on his trousers as if he had touched it.

The run down the garden had left my scar throbbing, a tiny pointed hammer knocking my vision off-​kilter with every blow. It seemed to me that the best thing we could do was stay perfectly still, all of us, wait till something came flapping down to carry this back to whatever seething otherworld had discharged it at our feet; that if any of us shifted a foot, took a breath, that chance would be lost and some dreadful and unstoppable train of events would be set in motion.
“Let me see,” Hugo said quietly, behind us. All of us jumped.

He moved between us, his stick crunching rhythmically into the grass,and leaned over to look.
“Ah,” he said. “Yes. Zach was right.”

“Hugo,” I said. He seemed like salvation, the one person in the world who would know how to undo this so we could all go back inside and talk about the house some more. “What do we do?”

He turned his head to look at me over his shoulder, pushing up his glasses with a knuckle. “We call the Guards, of course,” he said gently.

“I’ll do it in a moment. I just wanted to see for myself.”

“But,” Leon said, and stopped. Hugo’s eyes rested on him for a moment, mild and expressionless, before he bent again over the skull.

I was expecting detectives, but they were uniformed Guards: two big thick-​neckedblank-​faced guys about my age, alike enough that they could have been brothers, both of them with Midlands accents and yellow hi‑vis vests and the kind of meticulous politeness that everyone understands is conditional. They arrived fast, but once they were there they didn’t seem particularly excited about the whole thing. “Could be an animal skull,” said the bigger one, following Melissa and me down the hall. “Or old remains, maybe. Archaeology, like.”

“You did the right thing calling us, either way,” said the other guy. “Better safe than sorry.”

Hugo and Leon and Tom were still in the garden, standing well back.“Now,” said the bigger guy, nodding to them, “let’s have a look at this,” and he and his mate squatted on their hunkers beside the skull, trousers stretching across their thick thighs. I saw the moment when their eyes met.

The big one took a pen out of his pocket and inserted it into the empty eyehole, carefully tilting the skull to one side and the other, examining every angle. Then he used the pen to hook back the long grass from thejaw, leaning in to inspect the teeth. Leon was gnawing ferociously on a thumbnail.

When the cop looked up his face was even blanker. “Where was this found?” he asked.

“My great-​nephewfound it,” Hugo said. Of all of us, he was the calmest; Melissa had her arms wrapped tightly around her waist, Leon was practically jigging with tension, and even Tom was white and stunned-​looking, hair standing up like he’d been running his hands through it. “In a hollow tree, he says. I assume it was this one here, but I don’t know for certain.”

All of us looked up at the wych elm. It was one of the biggest trees in the garden, and the best for climbing: a great misshapen gray-brownbole, maybe five feet across, lumpy with rough bosses that made perfect handholds and footholds to the point where, seven or eight feet up, it split into thick branches heavy with huge green leaves. It was the same one I’d broken my ankle jumping out of, when I was a kid; with a horrible leap of my skin I realized that this thing could have been in there the whole time, I could have been just inches away from it.

The big cop glanced at his mate, who straightened up and, with surprising agility, hauled himself up the tree trunk. He braced his feet and hungon to a branch with one hand while he pulled a slim pen-​shapedtorch from his pocket; shone it into the split of the trunk; pointed it this way and that,peering, mouth hanging open. Finally he thumped down onto the grass with a grunt and gave the big cop a brief nod.

“Where’s your great-​nephewnow?” the big cop asked.

“In the house,” Hugo said, “with his mother and his sister. His sister was with him when he found it.”

“Right,” the cop said. He stood up, putting his pen away. His face, tilted to the sky, was distant; with a small shock I realized he was thrilled. “Let’s go have a quick word with them. Can you all come with me, please?” And to his mate: “Get onto the Ds and the Bureau.

”The mate nodded. As we trooped into the house, I glanced over my shoulder one last time: the cop, feet stolidly apart, swiping and jabbing athis phone; the wych elm, vast and luxuriant in its full summer whirl of green; and on the ground between them the small brown shape, barely visible among the daisies and the long grass.

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