This past year was really the first in which I began to read mysteries, and in writing about them here, I have felt a bit frustrated that I am unable to discuss them to the depths I would like in order to avoid giving the whole thing away. Tana French’s Edgar Award winning In the Woods is such a book, but fear not, I won’t spoil you.
As a group, homicide detectives stand among the most jaded, most alcoholic, most emotionally damaged groups that exist in literature. Yet even Rob Ryan stands out among them. As a boy growing up in a small town in Dublin, he and two friends go missing in the woods. Ryan is the only one found, with no memory of the event, his shoes soaked in blood not his own. The incident enters the town lore, a famous case that is referenced in the media again and again throughout Ryan’s life.
Ryan changes his name after spending his adolescence in boarding school, returning to Dublin where he makes a career as a homicide detective. The past is brought back full force when he is assigned to the murder of a twelve-year-old murdered near the very same woods, which currently are the sight of an archaeological dig. There is the possibility that the two cases may be connected in some way, and Ryan hopes to defeat his own demons by solving the current case.
French’s prose is fantastic. The situations and characters are drawn with a vividness that imprints them upon the reader’s mind; the feel of dreary Dublin and the life of a homicide detective is presented so well that at times the imagery makes you feel you are watching a movie. Like most novels, the narrative is in past tense, yet French is able to tantalize the reader with future events because of Ryan’s later perspective as he tells the story. This may not seem groundbreaking, but I find it more rare in fiction than one might initially think.
Ryan is a mess, making idiotic decisions throughout, yet French is able to make the reader sympathize with him even as they want to reach into the book and shake some sense into him. Supporting characters, especially Ryan’s partner Cassie, are also well written, coming across as believable well-rounded characters. There are also depictions of psychopathic behavior that are not over the top, which is both refreshing and more chilling than the usual.
I was a bit unsatisfied with the way the two mysteries interconnected, at least at the end of the story, yet this is something that would give too much away. In her next novel The Likeness, Cassie is the main character and French uses the denouement here to set up that situation. I suppose there isn’t anything wrong with this, and as a new reader to the mystery genre it may be the norm, but it struck me as a bit of a marketing ploy. That said, all the information we get is from Ryan, and I would say that most of it is pertinent for the resolution of his story.
In the Woods is a fantastic mystery, both in concept and execution. Rarely do I spend an entire day reading one book straight through, yet I couldn’t put this down. It gets my highest recommendation.