Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

On South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, local enforcer Virgil Wounded Horse is faced with a challenging and personal case.


David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s first novel, Winter Counts, is a gripping story of crime investigation set on the Lakota Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Virgil Wounded Horse is cynical. He can’t imagine not living on the rez, but he’s more than skeptical of Indian spirituality and ritual, and doesn’t feel very connected to his people; his memories of being bullied in school are too fresh. Now that both his parents and his sister are dead, he doesn’t have much family to feel loyal to–but he is devoted to his orphaned nephew, Nathan, now a teenager who shares his home.

Virgil makes his living as a private enforcer. Tribal police have very limited powers, and the feds don’t bother with much on the reservation short of murder, so the Lakota often resort to hiring someone like Virgil to deliver vigilante justice. Now he gets to beat up his former bullies, and earn a few bucks doing so. It’s not necessarily work to take pride in, though, especially in the eyes of his ex-girlfriend’s politically powerful family. So Virgil is surprised when her father, a tribal council member, asks for his help. And he’s even more surprised when the case brings Marie back into his life.

It seems a local small-time pot dealer might be moving up into dealing heroin on the reservation. And when Nathan accidentally overdoses, it all becomes very real, with high stakes. Virgil will end up traveling all over the rez and down to Denver to try to track this latest crime wave. The scope of the case quickly grows beyond this private enforcer’s comfort zone, and he has a renewed romance to manage, while trying to keep Nathan safe at the same time. Out-of-town gangs, heavy hitters and hard drugs challenge Virgil’s skills. To keep all these threads together, he may need to reconnect with his Native roots, after all.

While Weiden’s prose is serviceable, his sympathetic characters and gripping plot keep readers engaged. Action and suspense are special strengths, and Weiden, himself a member of the Lakota nation, brings valuable perspective to the lives and experiences of his characters. The setting of Winter Counts offers an important and overlooked glimpse at the particular challenges faced by Native Americans, especially concerning crime and justice. But make no mistake: at the heart of this crime novel is a fight for the future of Rosebud Reservation and the lives of Virgil, Nathan, Marie and many more for whom this place is home. Tightly paced, compelling, realistic and deeply felt, Winter Counts offers a fresh take on the crime thriller.


This review originally ran in the July 30, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 glasses of Shasta.

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke (audio)

Housekeeping note: I expect this will be my last Wednesday post of the season, if not the year. I am heading into a fall semester that I expect will be especially stressful, so I’ll return to a twice-weekly format, posting on Mondays and Fridays. Thanks for reading, friends!


This is just the third in the Dave Robicheaux series, dating back to 1989. I’ve been following Burke’s Robicheaux for decades (perhaps not back to 1989, when I was 7 years old). While this one showed some of the qualities I love about the series, I’m not sure it’s aged well in some ways. Or (as usual) maybe that’s me, the reader, needing something different at this time. It’d be interested to check in with a more recent book in the series – there are now 23 – and see how I react.

Dave Robicheaux runs a bait shop in New Iberia, Louisiana. He’s retired from both the New Orleans Police Department and from New Iberia’s; his wife Molly is recently dead, murdered in their bed; his adopted daughter Alafair (a refugee orphan from El Salvador) is a new member of the household. His old college roommate Dixie Lee turns up, mostly drunk and high and talking about overheard conversations about hiding bodies. Dave is haunted by Molly’s ghost and his father’s, and his own sobriety, held carefully at bay by AA meetings. But he can’t resist looking into Dixie Lee’s accusations, which overlap with Dave’s own past entanglements with a certain oil company. Facing murder charges thanks to a frame, Dave takes Alafair and travels up to Montana to track this mystery, getting involved with both the Mafia and the Blackfeet tribe, and plenty of unsavory characters. (Including Clete Purcell, who I’m always glad to see.)

Among the things I appreciate about the Robicheaux books is Burke’s evocative descriptions of the natural landscapes, showcased by landscapes like New Iberia and Montana (the two classic Burke settings). I’ve always found these books to lie at the literary end of the mystery genre’s spectrum; pacing is often sedate, in favor of evocation and atmosphere, and you might say, at the expense of a snappy plot. Dave’s wrestling with his demons (plenty of them internal, without considering his external enemies) treads a fine line between noir moodiness, and tiresome wallowing. He’s a certain kind of classic detective protagonist, like Connelly’s Harry Bosch: self-destructive, deeply antagonistic toward authority, violent, introspective, iconoclastic. Perhaps I am beginning to turn away from this type, as a reader, especially when they have physically satisfying but emotionally problematic sex with younger women.

The mystery plot of this book took far too long to resolve, for me. It was more enjoyable as lovely writing and studies on character and setting. Possibly the audio format was the wrong choice here, because it tends to take me longer than reading. I’m not sure how much of my trouble with this book was about me the reader, and I’m reluctant to criticize Burke, who I have long appreciated, but all I can report on is my own experience. Again, I wonder if this read better in 1989. I did catch one statement about race that I found problematic (to be fair, expressed by the character Robicheaux rather than the author Burke, but still to be considered). Next time I return to this series, I’ll look for a recent installment for comparison.

This audio performance by Mark Hammer is notable for its variety of accents, a different voice for each character. But I feel it contributed to the stately pace, too.

One thing that has not changed: there is no messing with Burke’s sentence-level writing about place. Here’s one sample from each setting.

The sun was above the oaks on Bayou Teche now, but in the deep, early morning shadows the mist still hung like clouds of smoke among the cattails and damp tree trunks. It was only March, but spring was roaring into southern Louisiana, as it always does after the long gray rains of February. Along East Main in New Iberia the yards were filled with blooming azalea, roses, and yellow and red hibiscus, and the trellises and gazebos were covered with trumpet vine and clumps of purple wisteria.

In the Jocko Valley I watched a rain shower move out from between two tall white peaks in the Mission Mountains, then spread across the sky, darken the sun, and march across the meadows, the clumped herds of Angus, the red barns and log ranch houses and clapboard cottages, the poplar windbreaks, the willow-lined river itself, and finally the smooth green hills that rose into another mountain range on the opposite side of the valley. Splinters of lightning danced on the ridges, and the sky above the timberline roiled with torn black clouds. Then I drove over the tip of the valley and out of the rain and into the sunshine on the Clark Fork as though I had slipped from one piece of geographical climate into another.

As for the rest, your mileage may vary, as always.


Rating: 6 ice cream cones.

The Trespasser by Tana French (audio)

The Trespasser is the sixth book in Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series, starring Antoinette Conway and her partner Steve Moran. Conway is chafing at her mistreatment by the rest of the murder squad, the good old boys’ club that hates her (she interprets) for being a woman, for having brown skin, for not playing their games. Moran’s all right, a good partner, and more or less loyal – she brought him into the squad, after all – but she has trouble trusting him entirely. It’s just a part of her personality, and/or, a result of the continuing abuse and harassment she experiences.

They work the night shift, and keep getting assigned low-level domestics and bar fights. Until Aislinn Murray: a Dream Date Barbie-type in a magazine-perfect flat, with a shadowy past. The squad pushes Conway and Moran to settle this one quickly, by charging the obvious suspect: a new boyfriend who had a date with Aislinn the night she died. But the two young detectives have some more complicated theories in mind. The Trespasser is part “straight” murder mystery, as they race to solve Aislinn’s murder, but it’s also part murder-squad intrigue, and a hefty part psychological drama: Conway has some formidable strengths, but it seems one of her greatest weaknesses is a certain suspicion, not to say paranoia, that makes it hard for her to trust Moran or anyone. In Tana French’s signature style, much of the turmoil of the story takes place not in exterior action but inside Conway’s head, as she argues with herself about what she can believe in.

In the middle, this one got a bit slow for me, and like The Witch Elm could have used some acceleration; but by the end, it zipped along as cracklingly as the best of French’s work. I still hold The Likeness to be her finest, but this one is solid.

And then, holy smokes, talk about amnesia. I just searched this blog for previous Tana French reviews and found that I’d read this one shortly before its 2016 publication. I can’t believe it – not for a moment did it feel familiar. I’m losing my mind. Previous review here, and I’m keeping the rating. This reading seems a bit different from that first experience in that I detected a slow-down in the middle; also, reading vs. listening makes a big difference with French’s atmospheric, heavily Irish stories. I love hearing them done aloud with the accents and the musical lilt and pacing, and wouldn’t want to consider reading them if I had the audio version available!

I can’t believe I forgot this book.


Rating: 8 schemes.

No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories by Lee Child

All the Reacher short stories! I thought I could take this one in chunks, but no: I stayed up later than I should have to rush through the whole thing, as per usual. I loved it.

I’d read “Second Son” before, but I was glad at another chance. It’s definitely one of those that requires a suspension of disbelief, as Reacher at (I think) thirteen is just a slightly smaller version of himself: badass, a fighter, and very clever. He solves two mysteries for the MPs, which seems a bit unrealistic, although also an excellent backstory for a later MP.

I’d also read “Small Wars,” but I doubted my memory of the ending, which made it fun again. There is an element almost of a Poirot-style detective in Reacher’s intuition, his ability to take scattered facts and build a whole story out of them.

Some of these stories star Reacher in adulthood, in his post-military rambling stage, which is when most of the novels are also set, and some see him still in the Army. But we also have several instances of teenaged Reacher. These are fun for me, although they make that mistake, as mentioned above, of treating younger Reacher as a miniature (still very large) version of adult Reacher. Whatever; it’s a departure from realism, but the Reacher corpus is not about hyper-realism. “Everyone Talks” is told from the first-person perspective of a character who’s not Reacher, and according to my memory, that’s unique. I appreciated the variety, being a bit outside his own perspective. By contrast with longer stories of 40+ pages (“High Heat” runs over 70), some of these stories are very short, almost vignettes, and might serve as character studies of Reacher himself: what does a guy like this do in a particular situation, that sort of thing. He’s a problem solver, he’s a hero, he’s an eccentric, he does the right thing. He’s a romantic, and a sexual creature, and he uses his fists, but with a code.

As a collection, I think No Middle Name is an excellent addition to the Reacher world, satisfying fans’ desires both for plot, storytelling, and action, and the Reacher character himself. (Also the odd romance or sex, which I think is a well-established if secondary element.) Longer, more involved stories come earlier in the collection; it wraps with several shorter ones. The final story, “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” (reference to the Hopper painting), felt like the perfect closer. Again, I thought short stories might help me take smaller sips of the fiction I love, but I ended up binging as usual, so consider that a warning of sorts. Possibly a good entry point for a curious reader. Certainly, a great read for the established fan.


Rating: 8 lines of adult dialog.

Past Tense by Lee Child

I was having a bad day and hit a couple of not-great books in a row, so I checked this one out from my local library and sat back. It’s a wonderful system, to get that ebook on my Kindle in minutes. Fixed my day right up.

Even a mediocre Reacher novel is a fun time, but this is one of the better ones: a real joy ride. Past Tense sees Reacher leaving Maine and aiming for San Diego, more or less, as winter approaches. Why not the beach and some warm weather? But of course he doesn’t make it that far. Instead he takes a spontaneous turn toward Laconia, New Hampshire, because he knows that name: it’s where his father is from. Stan Reacher, who never talked much about his past, whose origins Reacher has never visited before. So why not? And when he gets to Laconia and goes looking for the old homestead – property records and all – thinking he’ll cruise by and see it from the curb at least – the records are dodgy. Where did Stan Reacher hail from, really, exactly?

Also, being Reacher, he gets himself into a scuffle or two right off the bat. First, he’s awakened at 3 a.m. by a cocktail waitress being assaulted in an alley, which he fixes for her, with the result that some people come looking for revenge. Secondly – but that’s a longer story. There’s also a parallel storyline going on with some unrelated characters off in the nearby woods.

This novel (the 29th published, called #23 in the series) has everything I love about a Reacher thriller: hand-to-hand combat, with clever internal monologue; intrigue and fast guesses; front of brain versus back of brain; some great Reacher family history; fascinating twists and surprises; and for a refreshing change, romance that isn’t just about a thin, hot, young woman having sex with our favorite hero. The collision of the two storylines is pretty neat, too. I like that I can see it coming but not precisely how it’ll come. I loved the ending. This is classic stuff here, Lee Child more or less at his best. On the one hand, I can see the caricature pretty clearly at this point – I don’t know if Child’s writing has gotten more over-the-top or if it’s just my having read a few dozen of them. I don’t really mind, but it does require some suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, I am always pleased when a mystery/thriller (especially from an author I know so well) can surprise me, and this one did.

I’m still a huge fan.


Rating: 8 quad-bikes.

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

I read these nearly 400 pages in a single sitting, because that’s how compelling I continue to find Jack Reacher.

At the conclusion of another brief love affair, Reacher takes a bus out of Milwaukee, and gets out to stretch his legs at a comfort stop in a small Wisconsin town. In the window of a pawn shop, he spots a West Point class ring from 2005. It’s tiny; its owner must have been female, and small. He’s bothered: graduating West Point, as a diminutive woman, in 2005 – and whatever might have come afterward in Iraq or Afghanistan – would have been hard, meaningful. She shouldn’t have pawned her ring. Being Reacher, he doesn’t get back on his bus, but instead follows the ring’s tracks backward, through South Dakota into Wyoming.

He liked Wyoming. For its heroic geography, and its heroic climate. And its emptiness. It was the size of the United Kingdom, but it had fewer people in it than Louisville, Kentucky. The Census Bureau called most of it uninhabited. What people there were tended to be straightforward and pleasant. They were happy to leave a person alone.

Reacher country.

Being Reacher, again, he gets into scuffles along the way – in Wisconsin, in South Dakota, in Wyoming – and makes alliances: a retired FBI agent turned PI; a wealthy young woman with a mystery to solve. This installment in the series is satisfying in some of the usual ways. There are brawls and matches of wits, random trivia and landscapes and local color. There is rather less sex than in some Reacher novels (but not none). That last I didn’t mind; I was getting a little sick of Reacher getting laid in the same fashion and with the same type of woman over and over. I’d encourage Lee Child to keep exploring Reacher’s options in this regard. (Although now I have to lobby someone different, don’t I. Fingers crossed for the new guard.) And this time, there are cowboys. Mostly the retired, drug-addicted kind.

I found everything I wanted in this read, which was escapism; action; and the comfort of returning to an old favorite. I’m glad there are still a handful of Reacher books left (written by Child alone) for me to snuggle into.


Rating: 7 hikes uphill.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart (audio)

When I heard, some years ago, that the author of The Drunken Botanist had written a women-centered detective story, you can bet I couldn’t wait to get to it. Because it’s a touch longer than I usually have time for, it took me some four years to get to it, but I finally did, in a very nice audio format performed by Christina Moore.

Constance Kopp lives with her two younger sisters, Norma and Fleurette, on the family farm in the New Jersey countryside, even though their brother keeps insisting they sell it and move into town, because three “girls” shouldn’t be out there on their own. In the summer of 1914, their buggy is struck by an automobile driven by silk merchant Henry Kaufman. Constance insists that Kaufman should pay for damages, but Kaufman is a jerk and sort of a gangster type, and he refuses. The rest of 1914 and well into ’15 are absorbed with the Kopp-Kaufman conflict: Kaufman and his unsavory friends harass and stalk the Kopp sisters, eventually attempting to burn down their house and shooting at them, and sending letters threatening to kidnap young Fleurette and demanding money. At every point the “girls” (Fleurette is a teenager, but Constance is closer to 40 than 30) are encouraged to just let this thing drop, but Constance will not be deterred. She sues Kaufman for the damages and then pursues charges against him for the rest of the violence and threats; a friendly local sheriff’s assistance is critical to her persistence. Constance will prove a better detective than many real detectives, and this novel ends with her being offered just such a job. (The series of “Kopp Sisters” novels follows that thread.)

These events are closely based on the true Kopp sisters, and if you want to avoid spoilers for the novel, you’ll avoid reading the history just yet, too.

I had mixed feelings for this one. It’s got a solid plot, but one that dragged on far longer than it needed to; well-portrayed characters with complexity and flaws and quirks, but a bit more likeability would have helped me enjoy them far more. (I don’t require that I absolutely love all, or even any, characters in a book. But there has to be enough that I invest in them in some way. And while I appreciated Constance quite a bit, and Sheriff Heath, almost everyone else grated. You don’t want your reader to spend most of your book exasperated.) I dig the feminist pluck, the setting in time, and the period-appropriate details. The sisterly interactions were cute at first, but started to irritate me. I was often impatient. Nearly 500 pages? This novel could have been done in half that, I think, and would have been a snappy ripping little novel at that length. I would definitely be signing up for book 2 in the series in that case; as it is, I’m not sure I won’t look into it, which is of course a vote of some confidence. But I’m not sure I will, either, because it bogged down for so long. Why was this book as long as it was? We spent entirely too much time watching the same things happen over and over again.

The reading of this audio format was above average. I enjoyed the voices for the different characters and the contribution to Constance’s character.

Some high points for sure, but I can’t give a strong recommendation. Many readers have loved this book, so feel free to seek other opinions. To each her own.


Rating: 6 blue bands.

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly (audio)

I am considering a few possibilities about this book. 1) Michael Connelly has fallen down a little bit recently. 2) I saw a version of this story on the TV show Bosch, and the book coming second hurt its reception somewhat. 3) I think it might be #1 actually.

There are two storylines to this novel that run side-by-side. One is the pharmacy shooting in which a father-and-son pair of pharmacists are murdered in an apparent professional hit. Bosch and his colleagues at the San Fernando PD quickly link this to a possible ring of pill runners, and Bosch will end up going undercover as an opioid addict and getting into all kinds of mess. In the other thread, a decades-old case resurfaces when it looks like a convicted killer Bosch busted as just a baby detective will be released from Death Row. Bosch knows in his heart that the investigation was righteous and the guy is guilty, but worse still, it’s alleged that he planted evidence in the original case, so now his reputation is on the line.

The actual plotlines, both of them, are compelling. But many things about this book rubbed me wrong.

First, the reading of the audiobook by Titus Welliver – who plays Bosch on the TV show – sounded like a good idea. I think he’s an excellent Bosch onscreen. But it turns out that to read the audiobook, he has to play not only Bosch but all the other characters as well, and this may be beyond his range. Early on, a less-experienced detective has to go talk to the widow/mother of the murdered pharmacists, she expresses concern over the emotional challenge of this job – and Welliver delivers this in a monotone. Oh, no, I thought.

Did Connelly always over-explain like this? I am no kind of expert on the criminal justice system, except to the extent that I am an avid reader of murder mystery/crime procedurals and watcher of the same genre of television shows… It doesn’t seem like I should feel this impatient with the explanations of acronyms and procedures and why Harry might think or do a certain thing. Likewise, I’ve begun to pick up on a dialog tic that gets under my skin: police detective partners, say, explaining their actions or thought processes to each other out loud in a way that I just don’t believe they’d do in real life, for the benefit of the reader. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I can’t recall Connelly doing it before. Also, Harry Bosch is a pretty laconic guy. I think of him as being not big on explaining, let alone over-explaining. I don’t buy that Haller and Bosch’s banter would involve so much explanation. They move in the same circles, they speak most of the same lingo, and they’re pretty close. I think they’d operate with a lot more shorthand than we’ve got here. The ease with which a certain opioid addict is convinced, by a stranger, to take a cold-turkey cure felt unrealistic. There were just a lot of details that felt inauthentic.

But the worst thing came right at the end – and I said this just the other day. The ending of a book leaves the lingering impression! At the end of the book, Bosch is handed a solve on an old case. A woman long missing and considered dead – most likely murdered by her husband – turns up under a new identity and tells Bosch she had to flee her abusive marriage. “You have to stop looking for me,” she says. Bosch is angry with her for wasting the department’s resources in the search; his boss wants to have her charged with fraud. They are also offended that she left her baby behind with the abuser, who later gave said baby up for adoption. She doesn’t show remorse. The anger that Bosch and boss feel toward this woman pissed me off, you guys. We live in a culture that privileges male abusers over their victims. A woman like this likely couldn’t get out any other way – don’t make me laugh by saying she should have called the cops. She got out in the way she could. And if she caused department resources to be misspent? If she fucked up her kid’s life? That makes her a less-than-perfect victim, and gosh knows we only like our victims perfect. What’s funny, though, is that Bosch is the man of “everybody counts or nobody counts.” This was just the scenario for him to demonstrate that a victim of intimate partner violence, even though she made some choices we’d like to judge her for, deserved to take her own freedom where she could find it. It would make a lot more sense to get mad at the system that offered her no other out – and Bosch has plenty of experience getting mad at the system. He’s progressive enough to care about the rights of sex workers, but apparently not to extend his compassion to a survivor of domestic violence. This ending felt hypocritical, not to say misogynistic, and left a terrible taste in my mouth.

I’m sorry to feel so disenchanted here with one of my long-time favorite authors. And I can’t quite explain this: has Connelly changed so much? Have I? With beers or bicycles it’s hard to say, because you can’t go back in time. But in this case I have the classics, the early works – The Black Echo, The Black Ice, The Poet – to go back to. Hmm…

The plot, the mystery itself, is still solid. I can feel the old Harry Bosch underneath it all. But this edition did not work for me at all. Maybe I’ll hunt down one of those classics and double-check things. And I think I’ll still tune in to the recently-released season six of the show Bosch – assuming I can put this book behind me. Hope it’s a fluke.


Rating: call it 6 sealed envelopes just for old time’s sake.

television: Agatha Christie’s Poirot

I have been thinking, again, about some wonderful memories that have helped to shape me. For starters, please go revisit this post, as I think about what a precious gift my Grammy gave me when she took me to see my first live Shakespeare production at a beautiful theatre in San Diego when I was ten. And just now, I’ve been remembering watching Poirot, perhaps Agatha Christie’s best-known detective, when I was a little girl with my mother. I recall vividly the art-deco entry sequence. I loved this show.

In my memory, this was an old show, but I see now that it began in 1987, when I was five years old. So by the time I was watching it it was not new releases, but still pretty recent. Well, I’ve just rediscovered the series thanks to a few different channels on Amazon Prime. There are now thirteen seasons, and thank goodness, because I can’t get enough.

The early seasons are what I remember from childhood. The tone is fairly lighthearted; the audience is invited to laugh gently at Poirot, who takes himself too seriously, and who is accompanied by the variously comic Miss Lemon (with her ridiculous hairstyle and her lovable passion for filing), Captain Hastings (“I say!”), and Scotland Yard’s over-serious Inspector Japp. This is the cast of characters I loved so much as a child, and I find them as remembered, but with more depth and nuance now that I’m a few years older. (Or maybe my memory just got vague.) It goes without saying that Poirot himself is played by David Suchet, my first Poirot and the only one I recognize; I have since encountered other iterations and they are all offensively wrong for the role in my eyes. What can I say; I’m loyal to my first experience? but I really think he is the portrayer. I am not alone. “Agatha Christie never saw David Suchet in the role but her grandson Mathew has commented: ‘Personally, I regret very much that she never saw David Suchet. I think that visually he is much the most convincing and perhaps he manages to convey to the viewer just enough of the irritation that we always associate with the perfectionist, to be convincing!'” (source)

note the twinkle in the eye and the little smile

I am sorry to say that after season eight, Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp mysteriously disappear on us. Poirot is rather more alone from here, although he does gain (in season ten) a new butler, George, and a new friend, Ariadne Oliver, an irreverent mystery novelist who is always, always eating an apple. While Mrs. Oliver is good for a laugh or two, George does not provide much comic relief; neither of them replaces the original trio. The overall tone of the show has gotten less light, too. It feels a little bit, to me, as if the show has taken a step toward taking Poirot as seriously as he takes himself. I think the loss of tongue-in-cheek humor hurts. I love a good dark, grim, gritty mystery as much as anyone does, but having loved a slightly ridiculous Poirot I am less enamored of the darkly serious one. It is also somewhere in here that his Catholicism begins to play a role. I may misremember, but I feel like he used to be cynical about religion; now he is devout, always whispering over his beads. It’s not bad, but it’s different, and if my love for Poirot is much about nostalgia, I don’t like having my original version messed with.

we are getting more serious now

I’m very glad it keeps going, though. By the time I got to Murder on the Orient Express, near the end of season twelve, I was marveling at what wonderful storytelling Christie’s original was, for one thing, and at how glad I am to have this cinematic telling. The Catholicism is big in this one, and the darkness. Atmosphere, and the snowed-in backdrop, are very effectively done. It’s a grand story that I feel I’ve seen and read and heard in several formats by now, and this version does the whole thing justice. I’m so glad this production exists in the world; I feel lucky.

I am impressed to read that Suchet has played the entire Poirot canon by now! and “only slightly short of the target he had set himself of completing the entire canon before his 65th birthday.” (I’m using Wikipedia as a source; original interview here.) But I have the usual feeling of impending loss, as I finish season twelve and face the approaching end. Thank goodness there are so many stories in the world, yes? I hear Bosch is returning for a sixth season this spring…


Rating: 8 little gray cells, obviously.

I guess I rate television shows now too. What the heck.

The Witch Elm by Tana French (audio)

I have read and loved several books by Tana French now, although I think The Likeness has been my favorite. Like I’ve done with a few, this one I listened to. These Irish mysteries are just so lovely done in the appropriate accent, that lilting, musical, rhythmic speech.

The Witch Elm is no exception: Paul Nugent’s reading is dramatic and gorgeous and full of character. I got everything I wanted out of the audio format here.

As a book, I have some pros and cons. Some of what Tana French does best is in full evidence. There is an overwhelming, overarching atmosphere of foreboding and gloom. The narrator, Toby, refers almost immediately to how everything changed, went horribly wrong, starting with “that night.” He talks almost immediately about the Ivy House, about how lucky he was to have it, how it scarcely seems possible it was ever more than a dream. When he starts his story with “that night,” then, and when we first encounter the Ivy House, the foreshadowing could hardly be heavier. This sort of thing could be overbearing, but I don’t find it so; I love Tana French’s style, and this is an important part of it. There is an underlayer too of nostalgia, of a yearning appreciation of a beauty just out of reach, that melds nicely with foreboding; this feels to me like French’s signature.

The mildest of spoilers here: Toby is somewhat an unreliable narrator. I think you feel this early on. For one thing, his admitted lucky, golden-boy aura and life experience makes him quick to wail about the slightest wrongs he suffers, and minimize his own agency in certain events. But that’s not exactly what I mean by unreliable narrator. I mean that classic, delicious literary feature wherein we’re not sure if we should trust the story as it’s told to us, because the narrator might be lying, or mentally ill, or confused. I love this stuff.

The plot, too, was strong, and I think this is another of French’s greatest talents. (I am still reeling at The Likeness.) I enjoyed its complexity, and the sense throughout that there was something I couldn’t see or understand, yet, that was just around the next corner. Certain connections that Toby insists upon are never proven, but this is part of his frustrating unreliability as narrator.

All good so far, right? My biggest criticism of this book is in its length and pacing. Look, I enjoyed it all the way through. But for a good stretch, in the second half, I felt that things could have been sped up more than a little bit. There is a delicate balance between drawing out suspense and letting it hang too long in midair, and I think it’s been poorly handled here. I enjoy French’s characteristic gloomy atmosphere, and the music of Nugent’s reading, enough that it didn’t bother me too much; I think readers with less investment will be bothered still more. We could have moved things along without losing anything. This feeling was exacerbated by Toby’s self-pity. While I think less-than-likeable lead characters are an interesting and often fruitful artistic choice, a whiny one who is allowed to spend too long wallowing can begin to grate. After writing these lines, I’ve checked a few reviews; most find The Witch Elm expertly crafted, but this Washington Post review is more in line with my own reactions:

It’s very eerie; it’s also quite hefty and static for long stretches. Whether you find the novel satisfying will probably depend on how much you care about action vs. atmosphere. French expertly crafts a cloud cover of thickening menace throughout this extended narrative, but the storm doesn’t break until the very end. By then, even the most patient reader may be excused for being exhausted from all the bleak moodiness that preceded it.

I love action and atmosphere, and I did enjoy this book, but again, I counsel caution for all but the most French-devoted reader (or one who knows she’s ready for a long, atmospheric build-up). (Bonus: the WaPo review is written by Maureen Corrigan. What fun.)

French’s characters tend to be a strength, but I think they waver slightly here. Toby is well developed (although not terribly likeable). His cousins and Uncle Hugo moderately so; there is enough meat there (if you’ll forgive the usage) to appreciate them. His girlfriend Melissa is a weakness, though. Her entire reason for being here is to serve as a ray of sunshine for Toby; she is indefatigably peppy and optimistic, which I find annoying in real life and less than credible on the page. The cops, on the other hand, feel quite real. (Recall that French often writes from their point of view. Hmm.)

A final qualification for this book: it’s tricky to give a trigger warning with a novel of suspense, like this one, and I rarely deal in trigger warnings anyway. But here I do think it should be said: if you deal with trauma regarding serious, terrorist-level stalking, heads up.

Despite my criticisms, I am here for more Tana French and on the whole enjoyed this one quite a bit. Look for me to get into The Trespasser sometime soon. As for a recommendation on this one, it depends on your capacity for patience and your commitment to French’s distinctive style. If you do read/have read The Witch Elm, I’d be very interested in your opinion!


Rating: 6.5 candlesticks.
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