I am having a week of which mystery lovers everywhere dream. After weeks of moaning in a my book posts about the dearth of good books to read, I have for the last few days been in mystery lovers’ nirvana. The state of perfect happiness, when the literary planets align, and everything I read, listen to, or watch is great. Sigh.

I’m finally reading Tana French’s latest book, The Witch Elm (affliate link) I’ve been on the waiting list at the library for ages. This week I have had my nose deeply buried in that book. First on my i-pad and then in hard copy. I love Tana French’s work. Her Dublin Murder Squad series has been very, very good.

I liked The Wych Elm or The Witch Elm a lot right off the bat. Then, to be honest, I grew a bit impatient with the somewhat rambling structure. But I kept reading, was captivated again, became a bit impatient with Toby’s situation, persisted, and then finally became totally engrossed. But let me back up a bit.

picture of an ancient wych elm near a stone wall and a gate, in Cumbria,England.
An ancient Wych Elm in Cumbria, England. Source

The Wych Elm is the story of Toby Hennessy, his family, his friends, and his girlfriend as they navigate through some pretty traumatic events. Events that will eventually wreak chaos in their lives. Toby is handsome, bright, young, has a beautiful girlfriend, good mates, and a great job. He is a very lucky man. But at the beginning of the novel he doesn’t seem to understand how lucky he is. He doesn’t comprehend the depth of his privilege. As his friend Dec points out, he “hasn’t a clue” how charmed his life has been.

Then things go awry. Toby has a moral crisis at work, his apartment is burgled, he is attacked by the thieves, and left for dead. Toby doesn’t die, but the physical, emotional, and psychological damage is huge. He struggles to recover; he has physical limitations, and his nerves and his memory are shot. Then Toby and his girlfriend move into Toby’s grandparent’s house, to act as carers for his beloved uncle Hugh who is dying of brain cancer. And for a time, the peaceful routine they fall into, and being once again in the home where his father and uncles grew up, and where Toby and his cousins spent every summer as children, seems to be working. Until they find the skeleton. In the wych elm tree.

Photo of mystery writer Tana French as seen in The Irish Times.
Tana French in The Irish Times

The Wych Elm is a “slow burn of a novel”, as Anna Carey says in her review in The Irish Times. As Toby, his family, and the police try to uncover how the skeleton came to be in the elm tree, things fall apart. The mystery of the skeleton is complicated by Toby’s attempts to piece together his past. Relationships become strained, and Toby begins to wonder how well he knows family members he’s “known” all his life. Who can he trust? Can he even trust himself? As Carey says in her review, “Toby is a particularly fascinating unreliable narrator.”

French plays with several themes in this novel: the idea of privilege, the effects of trauma, family dynamics, friendship, responsibility. But perhaps the most interesting theme that is explored is that of identity. Are we the person we think we are, or are we the person others see? I tell you folks, just thinking about that really messes with your head.

Now let’s take a moment to discuss wyches or witches, and which wych is which. As I read this book, I began to notice that the characters referred to the wych elm in the backyard. Huh. “So then why is the novel called The Witch Elm?” I wondered, “Where’s the witch come into it?” And when I did my research, I saw that in the UK the novel was published under the title The Wych Elm. I hate it when North American publishers change stuff like that. Seriously, there’s no such thing as a witch elm, and certainly no witches in the book. Sigh.

But there is, interestingly enough, a true story of a different wych elm and a different skeleton. Apparently, in 1943 children playing in Hagley Wood in Worchester, England, found the skull of a woman in a wych elm tree. Local police found the rest of her skeleton in the tree, and eventually established that she’d been killed in 1941. The mysterious woman was never identified, and numerous theories abounded as to who she was and how she ended up in the tree. You can read the story for yourself here and here.

Cover for Tana French's novel The Witch Elm.
French’s latest novel… but what’s with the spelling?

So yeah, this week I’ve been busy reading and pondering. Thinking about trees and identity, and getting all excited about how people perceive me and if it’s the same way I perceive myself. I do tend to let engrossing books engross me a bit too much. And while I’ve been walking or pedalling my exercise bike, I’ve been listening to an old Ruth Rendell book. Gosh I love her writing. And I love Wexford and Burden and especially Dora. Despite the fact that they’re all about murder and mayhem, her books are calming. Not to mention restrained, deftly plotted, and very well written.

Rendell died in 2015, and to slightly misquote Shakespeare, we “shall not look upon her like again.” Have a look at her life and career in this article in The Daily Mail written by her friend A.N. Wilson. Wilson says that of Rendell’s “80 books or so” he “never found a dud.” If you’ve not read Rendell, her back list alone is a mystery lover’s nirvana.

And if reading a wonderful book, and listening to another wonderful book are not enough to create nirvana, Hubby and I have been watching Season 3 of the British mystery series The Unforgotten. I’m a big fan of Nicola Walker who plays DCI Cassie Stuart; I loved Walker in Last Tango in Halifax. Cassie heads up a team of investigators who look at cold cases. I mean, like, really cold. If you haven’t caught any of this series you should keep an eye out for it. Each season deals with one mystery. We love the way the episodes intertwine, drawing together seemingly unrelated characters and events. No pyrotechnics, no car crashes, just a well written script and some very fine acting. Goes well with a glass of wine and a bowl of popcorn. Just saying.

Cast of the British televison series The Unforgotten. Season 3.
Cast of The Unforgotten. Season 3

I’m not quite finished reading The Wych Elm or The Witch Elm, whichever. So I think I will take myself off to my sun room and finish the book before supper. Then it’s another episode of The Unforgotten for Hubby and me.

Then of course… hockey. It’s Stanley Cup season. Hubby tapes the game and, after we finish watching whatever we want together, he watches it. While I move to the sun room and try to read, or blog, and pretend he’s not regaling me with commentary on goals, penalties, bad calls, unlikely saves, whatever. After over thirty years together he still sees me as someone who understands hockey. So I ask you… are we the person we think we are, or are we the person that others see?

Still, even if we don’t share a love of hockey, we share a love of fishing, and travel, and reading. You know, it might be too much of a good thing if I loved hockey as well. Almost too much nirvana for one man to bear, you might say.

P.S. I found that shot of the wych elm tree above on a quirky site called Cumbria’s Top 50 Trees. You can read all about each specific tree, and even look at a Google map of where to find it if you want to take a stroll and look at some cool trees.

Now tell us what you’re reading, or listening to, or watching these days folks? Anything good?

You can buy Tana French’s The Witch Elm here at Amazon.

NOTE: I now have an affiliate relationship with Amazon, so if you buy the book by clicking a link in my post, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. NO worries if you don’t want to do that. None at all. 🙂


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41 thoughts on “Mystery Lovers’ Nirvana”

  1. Hi Sue,
    Fun post. I just finished watching Netflix’s Scott and Bailey tonight and sorry it’s over. Another interesting short series was Secret City. I’ll have a look for The Unforgotten.
    The hockey game was watched on Sunday during our family’s Easter brunch. There was 15 of us. Adults on chairs, some stretch out on the floor. My son in Belgium, sent a picture of his computer with the game on there. How Canadian is that!

    1. I really like Scott and Bailey. I think that’s where I first saw Nicola Walker; she played the daughter of a man who’d been responsible for several deaths.
      P.S. I remember one year when we were in Australia during play-off season, we’d stop off at internet cafes to check scores etc. One cafe had a Canadian kid on the desk, and he asked Hubby to tell him the scores when he’d found out. When we left there was a different young man on the desk. And Hubby said that he wanted to report on the hockey scores, was the Canadian guy gone for the day. And the new young man replied, “Ha. I want to know too. I’m from Winnipeg.” We laughed at that.

  2. I finally finished Louise Penny’s Kingdom of the Blind last week. I never read mysteries and after getting hooked on Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhouse alphabet series someone on your blog suggested Louise Penny. I started last February (2018) after my husband had surgery and we were housebound for several months. I ordered them from our local used bookstore and managed to get all but the last two used. I loved those books. Apparently she has another one coming out in August. Can’t wait. Meanwhile I have a shelf of other books (not mysteries) which I picked up when I was at the used bookstore and need to get through them as our house is sold and we will be downsizing this summer. I am wondering if I am going to continue with my newfound love of mysteries which I can’t believe I never read until I was 70!!!!!!

    1. Nothing better than a good writer with a huge back list you haven’t read, eh? Most of our used bookstores are gone now. I used to love to ferret around in them. Now I content myself with browsing at Gus’s when I’m in Fredericton. He has a wonderful store.
      P.S. For anyone who might be in Fredericton, it’s Gus Books on Saint Mary’s Street. 🙂

  3. As you know, I just read the first of Denise Mina’s Alex Morrow series, and I’m looking forward to borrowing the next from the library when I’m back home. Meanwhile, I just downloaded Donna Leon’s By Its Cover and I’m pleased to find that Guido and Paola Brunetti are also watching Spring bloom all ’round them. And I just bought a paperback copy of Philippe Georget’s Les Méfaits d’Hiver at Bordeaux’s wonderful bookstore, Mollat. Look for Georget’s books translated into English — the first featuring Inspector Gilles Sebag is Summertime: All the Cats Are Bored. Pretty sure you’ll like it (I borrowed mine from the library).
    I’m glad you enjoyed The Wych/Witch Elm — I heard from a few readers who liked her earlier books but were impatient with this one. I guess I just surrendered to her structure (although I did wonder, at points) with some faith established through her earlier titles — I found one incident, a pivotal one, hard to credit, but considering her theme of identity and its relation to luck or chance, I suspended my disbelief. . . Won’t say more now, since you’re still reading. Thanks so much for unearthing (untree-ing?!) that earlier real-life case. . . So interesting what prompts a writer to play with narrative. . .

    1. I love Denise Mina. Saw her a couple of years ago at the Ottawa Writers Festival. Stu and I were just talking about the Alex Morrow series. We both really enjoyed that series. My personal favourite, though of Mina’s books is the Paddy Meehan series. I won’t say I didn’t struggle at time with The Wych Elm. But,, like you I trusted French’s skill and persisted. At times I did find the plot wandered too much, especially with the detailed reporting of every family get together, all the jokes and stories told, I grew inpatient with that. But there was so much other stuff I loved that I forgave her. Ha.

  4. A very happy bunny over here in the UK, lots of enjoyable things to red/watch/listen to. Watching the current series of Line of Duty on BBC tv, (perhaps not as good as the first few series, but still enthralling). Also watching The Victim on BBC tv. Listening to The Shark (book 1) – isn’t it lovely when you find a new author and there’s a whole load of other books ahead of you. Reading They Knew Mr Knight by Dorothy Whipple – Persephone Books.

    1. Oh, I love Dorothy Whipple. I first discovered Persephone Books when I picked up Mrs Pettigrew Lives for a Day years ago. Then I never found anymore until I discovered the books on Kindle a year or so ago. Have you been to their store in London? Wish I’d gone when we were there in 2016.

  5. And Anne Cleeves has a new series coming out later this year. The Long Call is the first in this new series set in Exeter. I loved her Shetland series, both the books and the television series.

  6. Yvonne Harrison

    I love Tana French although it has been quite a while since I’ve read any of her work (don’t know why???). I am currently reading Lie to Me by J.T. Ellison. I hate all the characters which means I love the book. I so need to find out what happens to all of them. The story is similar to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, a psychological, mind bending book. My husband can always tell when I read one of these because, according to him, I start looking at him funny. He’s convinced I am going to do something for which he will be blamed. I told him to sleep with one eye open. The older I get the more unpredictable I have become. That and I love to see him squirm. I am so bad.

    1. J.T. Ellison is a new one for me. Thanks, Yvonne. Bet your Hubby hopes you don’t start reading “domestic noir” books. Apparently it’s a thing.

  7. I like the clever way you led us through that post Sue . I read a Tana French years ago but it didn’t lead me to others . I think it depends what I’m reading , my mood or what else is going on in my life . I shall try another . So odd when publishers see fit to change titles & you wonder why the author allows it . I’ve put mysteries aside for a while to read some Elizabeth Taylor books ( no not the one with the jewels ) & I loved Mrs Palfrey At the Claremont . Yes , Unforgotten is a favourite in our house too & Nicola Walker is always worth watching . Hockey is the stuff of nightmares to me though – Snowy , windy , cold days on the school hockey field & me in my shorts trying to avoid the action ? Old trees are more my thing & Cumbria isn’t faraway , so thanks for the site .

    1. I’ve read a couple of Elizabeth Taylor books on my Kindle. I really enjoyed them. Gentle reading. You should have tried ice hockey, Wendy; at least you don’t have to wear shorts!
      P.S. I thought about you when I saw that map to the old wych elm. All 50 of the trees have map references, directions, and a story about why they were included. I love that site.

  8. You are so right about it messing with your mind, wondering if others perceive us as we so ourselves. A curse of the introverts is mulling this over to the nth degree after social interactions. One of the benefits of older age is becoming more comfortable in my own skin and caring less what they think. I too am always eagerly awaiting Louise Penney’s next book. I picked up A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd, I think on the recommendation of Anne at Modern Mrs Darcy. And we love The Unforgotten! Acorn TV channel provides much of our evening entertainment, along with a sub to PBS Passport. The new rendition of Les Mis on PBS is gripping(and any chance to see Olivia Coleman is a plus).

  9. I know what you mean-my friend calls it my escapism state (and I have to say that he is right!)
    I have to give another try to Tana French-now I’m curious enough
    My winter and spring were spent in Cornwall with inspector Wycliffe-and how cozy it was! And how sad that I’ve finished the series. My friend has recommended M.C.Beaton’s (Marion Chesney IRL) Agatha Raisin series,situated in Cotswolds.I can’t recommend something I’ve just started to read,but …Cotswolds,what’s here not to like?
    Have you read it? There’s a tv show too
    There is a good thing…she has written so many mysteries,but than a bad thing could be…if she has so many mysteries,could it be so good? I’ll see…
    I’ve read the newest Donna Leon,Unto Us a Son is Given (excellent),Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game and the sweet little book Baba Dunja’s Last Love by Alina Bronsky,a Russian-born German writer (not a mystery but an excellent book)
    Last series I’ve watched was Danish/Swedish The Greyzone-highly recommend
    Love Unforgotten

    1. M.C. Beaton is very light. I prefer the Hamish Macbeth books to the Agatha Raisin. We used to watch the Macbeth series on television in the nineties starring Robert Carlyle. We even visited the town on which Chesney based the fictional town of Lochdubh. But to be honest, I find the Agatha Raisin books a teensy bit annoying. Still they’re fun to listen to because they’re read by Penelope Keith and she is very good.

  10. Do you know of any mysteries that take place in British Manner homes? My son loves this genre. Wondering if you knew of any. Thanks. Books I’ve loved lately. “Bad Blood”, “Eleanore Oliphant is Fine,” “I Hear the Crawdads Sing”, “The Long Way Home. ”

    I’m now reading something interesting Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things” It’s an advice column that is fabulous writing and reading. I was hesitant but boy is it good.

    1. Has he read any of the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers? She is long dead but she wrote quite a few wonderful mysteries and now Jill Paton Walsh has started writing using Sayers’ characters. We checked one of Paton Walsh’s books out of the library based on Annie Green’s ( her blog is No Hat No Gloves) recommendation and Stu read it first and loved it. He’s now enjoying an old original Sayers’ novel.

      1. Lord Peter was my absolute favorite! I can’t wait to check out Jill Patton Walsh. I just finished the 4th Robert Galbraith mystery. It was good but not great. I like the characters but the story was a little over-wrought. Thanks for the excellent recommendations.

  11. I think you are my favorite blogger. You hit the trifecta with this post. My book group read wth Witch Elm and most did not care for any of the characters or their actions. I never thought of the themes of identity and perception, I wish I would have read your opinion first. I thought of it more of a lack of ethics and what happens when you don’t do the right thing. Or can you do the right thing. And he was such an obvious unreliable narrator, no suspense there. I much preferred The Trespasser.
    I have finished all but the last of Rendell’s Wexford books, sigh. My problem now is that at my age, 66, I have read many series and aged with the protagonists. The same with the Rebus books, that hit me pretty hard since I started that series in my 30s.
    And don’t get me started on Unforgotten! Love it. Are you watche Killing Eve? So different. Sandra Oh is so good in it.

    1. Ah, thanks, Cindy Lou. The Wych Elm was not my favourite book by French at all. But I love her writing. Wish that uncle Hugh did not have to die; he was the best character in the book. I’d have loved to have the plot go in the direction of his genealogy research.

  12. P.S. I am rereading Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. Written in 1935 it is so pertinent today regarding the roles of women. Very sly, clever and defiant.

  13. What a coincidence, my husband and I had a lovely 2 hour walk this morning around the hills of Client admiring the beautiful swathes of bluebells before descending to a busy road and then walking up to the Wychbury obelisk ! I will add Tana French’s novel to my never ending list of reservations at the local library. Some of my favourite authors have been mentioned by your other followers – Louise Penny, Sue Grafton, Kate Atkinson, Donna Leon, and Jacqueline Winspear. I wasn’t very keen on the first couple of novels by Jacqueline Winspear but as the series has carried on covering the inter war years and the rise of fascism, communism, and the fears of a new world war, I’ve enjoyed them even more. Michael Connelly’s series about Detective Bosch has never failed to disappoint especially as he has recently in his last two books introduced a good female character: Detective Renee Ballard.
    I’m also looking forward the new Anne Cleeves’ series. I was disappointed at how she wrapped up the Shetland series almost as if she had got fed up with the characters. Too many murders perhaps for such a small area.
    Can I please recommend, “Thirty Women, Thirty Stories” by Cecelia Ahern. I have not read any of her previous novels but this is a number of short stories which touch on the lives of thirty very different women. I kept nodding my head in recognition particularly over the tales told from the point of view of an older woman. But my best read of the year so far is “Sixteen Trees of the Somme” by Lars Mytting. In part, a mystery, romance, and a tragedy but with hope at the end. Oh the joy of reading and having good sight to read. Lots of non fiction being read as well as I am still filling the gaps of my lack of knowledge of world history. There’s also some decent tv series as your other commentators have mentioned. Thank heaven for early retirement !

    1. I’ve not read any Cecelia Ahern. Thanks for the suggestion, Heather. Wow that is a coincidence about walking past the obelisk. I was just reading about it yesterday. There are so many interesting places to visit, and interesting books to read, and stuff to find out… how did we ever find time to work??

  14. PS. Sorry I meant to thank you and everyone for their suggestions which I will add to my reading list.

  15. I read in the wintertime too, especially mysteries and thrillers. But, for the last two weeks I’ve been binge-watching the whole Longmire series. Not who I ever thought I was.
    It’s engrossing, well-written and we’ll-acted.
    Thank you for Unforgotten, and the book suggestions – I will revisit Ruth Rendell – used to love her!

    1. I hadn’t read Rendell for a while and then discovered all her old books on audible.com. I’d kind of forgotten what a great stylist with words she was.

  16. I think we’re a combination of the person we think we are AND the person that others see . . . . I do think we’re probably closer to the person we think we are, though, as we only show to the world that which we want to show. I always enjoy reading your book/author recommendations.

    1. Good point. I agree that we only show certain sides of ourselves to certain people. I empathized with French’s character who felt himself misjudged by those he though loved him.

  17. I totally agree with you about Donna French, although I haven’t yet read The Witch Elm – I will turn to it now. I also agree about Unforgotten and Nicola Walker, and with your commenters about Louise Perry’s books. But I’ve read a lot of Ruth Rendell and found them fine but not wonderful – I think I’m too disturbed by her casual acceptance of stereotypes about women. Maybe I’ll try again.

    1. I hadn’t looked at Rendell that way. Hmm. Must remember that next time I listen to one of her books. I just find her plots impeccable, no ramping up the action at the end for no reason like so many recent mystery writers. And her style is really good.

  18. I didn’t like The Witch Elm (US) and never finished it. I find Tana French uneven. For some reason, I’m missing Anita Brookner right now, might re-read some of her books (although not mysteries.) About to dive into The Overstory, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Thanks for the recommendation of Unforgotten….I’ll be trying it.

    1. You know.. I wasn’t finished the book when I wrote my post. It was a book that really got under my skin in a kind of disturbing way. I usually love French’s work, but I can’t whole-heartedly endorse this one now that I know what happens in the end. The reviews I read were split in their opinions. I mean the real reviews, not just the puff pieces with a plot summary and some gushing. LOve Anita Brookner, too.

  19. Although I love watching mysteries in film or on television – I especially love the British and Scandinavian crime/mystery TV series and I am also a huge fan of Nicola Walker and The Unforgotten – I can’t remember the last time I read a mystery. Nancy Drew as a kid maybe. (By the way, did you ever watch the Bletchley Circle series with Olivia Colman? It’s very good. Ditto George Gentley.)

    You certainly make this book sound compelling… but I’ve still got my nose in Colette and an anthology of essays these days.

    1. I did watch the first season of Bletchley Circle and liked it. Stu and I have watched every season of George Gently. I love Martin Shaw. My friend and I saw him in a play at the Royal Theatre in Bath when we were in England in 2016.

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