The plot is very simple. Conway and Moran are at the margins of the murder squad, stuck on the night shift where they get to deal with drunken violence and domestic killings rather than the more spectacular or complicated murders discovered by the day watch. At the end of a shift, their boss hands them a new case, a young woman found dead in her house after the police are alerted by an anonymous phone call. The scene looks like more of the domestic violence they usually deal with, but their boss tells them to include in their team a more experienced detective, Breslin, who seems to be along to keep track of what they're doing. It’s Conway’s case, though, and she plans to keep Breslin at arm’s length. Neither the dead woman, Aislinn Murray, nor the crime scene provides many clues, however: no trace of the killer is found in her house, though her phone shows that she had invited a man for dinner. Her best friend identifies the man, a bookshop owner, and Breslin immediately begins pushing him forward as the prime suspect, in pursuit of a quick “solve.” But Conway and Moran can’t resist the urge to make the case more complicated, more interesting, and they begin tantalizing one another with alternate versions of Aislinn’s life and death.
When it appears that the victim was killed immediately after answering the door, without a sexual assault being committed, Conway says, “Attempted doesn’t play either. What, he walks in the door and shoves his hand straight up her skirt? Doesn’t even wait till they’ve had a glass of wine and his chances are better?” Conway continues to develop stories of the crime in her inner dialogue as well: on discovering that the killer hung around the crime scene to clean up and turn off the stove, she muses,
Lover Boy is changing, in my mind. I had him down as some sniveling little gobshite who threw a punch that went wrong and who was probably back in his flat shitting himself and waiting for us to show up so he could spill his guts and explain how it was all her fault. But that guy would have been halfway home before Aislinn’s body hit the floor. He would never have been able to make himself stand still and think strategy.
These narratives, particularly the scenarios that Conway and Moran toss back and forth, are the real subject of The Trespasser. In a forensic thousand-and-one nights (compressed into four days, from early Sunday morning through Wednesday), Conway and Moran tell each other the story of the crime over and over again, changing the details to accommodate new evidence or new ideas — even paranoid ideas. At one point Conway says to herself, “All these stories. They hum like fist-sized hornets in the corners of the ceiling, circling idly, saving their strength. I want to pull out my gun and blow them away, neatly, one by one, vaporize them into swirls of black grit drifting downwards and gone.” French recognizes that these stories are the means by which we organize our lives, but she also insists on their darker power:
[E]very single one of their heads is crammed with stories they believe and stories they want to believe and stories someone else has made them believe, and every story is battering against the thin walls of the person’s skull, drilling and gnawing for its chance to escape and attack someone else, bore its way in and feed off that mind too.
This voraciousness is also something the police can harness: “[I]t’s left me gobsmacked, how people will tell you things they should keep locked inside for life; how ferociously they need the story to be out in the air, in the world, to exist somewhere outside their own heads.”
Conway also tells herself more personal stories, particularly when the victim’s life suggests parallels to her own. There are numerous points of comparison between the detective and the victim. Both are single, living in nearly identical rooms (though decorated, or one might even say inhabited, quite differently). Both were abandoned by their fathers, though Aislinn knew and loved hers and Conway’s left before she was born (and was the subject of many stories told by her mother, lies that begin with the first lines of the novel). Both fathers loom over (and eventually return, in different ways) through the course of the narrative. Unhappy families are a major theme in French’s work (most spectacularly in the comic and tragic miseries of the Mackey family in Faithful Place): in The Trespasser, absent fathers are the malignancies that disorient or destroy the lives of everyone in the family.
French was an actor before she turned to fiction, and the interrogations and interviews that make up a large part of The Trespasser (par for the course in procedural crime fiction) are suggestive of theater, with players on both sides of the table reciting stories. Conway explains the process:
Everyone has an interview shtick. One guy on the squad does a beautiful line in Father Confessor, piling on the guilt and waving absolution like a doggy treat; another one does Narky Headmaster, staring over his glasses and snapping out questions. I do Warrior Woman, ready to rush out with her guns blazing and avenge all your wrongs, if you’ll just tell her what they are, and her flipside Stroppy Man-Hating Bitch when we want to piss off a rapist or a Neanderthal; I also do Cool Girl, who’s one of the lads and stands her round and has a laugh, who guys can talk to when they wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to another fella.
She also gives us a view of the stage-setting that lies behind a police interrogation (a lesson all of us should keep in mind should we ever find ourselves across the table from a detective), from props and gimmicks like stacks of paper and fake lie-detector tests to outright lies about witnesses or consequences. The behavior of the cops on the squad — full of posturing and lies, shady conversations in stairwells, hazing and bullying newcomers and outsiders — is also an elaborate and frequently mean-spirited form of theater.
Four of French’s five previous novels have titles referring to prominent sites in the novel’s setting (In the Woods, Faithful Place, Broken Harbor, and The Secret Place — which refers to a bulletin board rather than a hiding place). The Likeness, her second novel, is named for a physical and ultimately emotional characteristic of the main character. The title of The Trespasser makes a rather more obscure reference. There is indeed a trespasser, mentioned in what seems to be a minor piece of eyewitness evidence: a man glimpsed by a neighbor vaulting over the victim’s back wall. But another kind of trespass is at the heart of the novel, more in the sense of “those who trespass against us,” a biblical word also translated as “sin” or “debt.” The sin or trespass in French’s novel is a betrayal, a secret seizure of control over Aislinn’s life and future by someone in whom she has placed her trust: a trespasser who imposes a story onto her, a fabrication that will distort her fate without her consent or even her awareness. Conway, when she realizes what has happened, returns to the motif of storytelling: she says the detectives have been “scrabbling so hard to pull the true story out of the tangle, we forgot the false ones come with their own ferocious, double-edged power.”
French’s characters often fixate on unseen threats, lurking in the background — the creature in the walls in Broken Harbor, for example. In The Trespasser, this lurking menace isn’t the shadowy trespasser, it is the Murder Squad itself. Conway has felt tormented and ostracized by the other members of the otherwise all male squad since first arriving (as not only the only female but also the only racially mixed detective, in a country only recently encountering the globalized immigrations of today’s world), and has suffered attacks that are more than simple hazing — paperwork taken from her desk, urine dumped in her locker. In Broken Harbor, the menace is like something from a psychological horror tale, and in The Trespasser, the reader begins to suspect a different kind of psychic terror as Conway internalizes the threats emanating from the other cops in her ongoing, paranoid inner monologue. Her only source of external confirmation for her persecution is her partner, a rookie detective who is for the most part an enabler of Conway’s suspicions. The psychological pattern that French is investigating in the new novel is the detective’s, rather than a suspect’s, and the paranoid voice is also that of the narrator. We are stuck in Conway’s world of suspicion and threat along with her, and the result is intense and claustrophobic. Luckily, Conway has a sense of humor, and her paranoia is broken by smartass noir asides (“This guy couldn’t order a sandwich without tying himself in knots about the possible consequences of mayonnaise,” just for example).
Conway’s narrative has a dizzying spiral motion as the story of the crime is told and retold and entwined with her own story, and the tension is palpable over the detectives’ rush through the four days of the investigation. Despite the procedural format and the puzzle of the crime, The Trespasser is not a systematic, clockwork journey toward a final revelation or resolution. What French achieves in the end is a moment of clarity for Conway and the reader, when the stories finally reach a momentary balance and coherence that may be the closest we can get to truth or peace.