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August 20, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | August 20, 2008 |

If you’re looking for something dark, fast-paced, and atmospheric enough to take you right into autumn, Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, is the perfect way to go. French has written a taut, albeit imperfect, murder mystery that sucks the reader in and doesn’t let go.

The novel begins in 1984, as three children spend a normal day playing in the woods. Little do they know, however, that this will be a day like none other, and no one will ever be the same. What happens in the woods that day remains a mystery; all that is known is that two of the children are never seen again. Only one boy is found, Adam Ryan. Ryan is found gripping a tree trunk and wearing blood-filled sneakers, with no memory at all of what had happened.

Twenty years later, Ryan still has no memory of the incident, and he’s now a detective on the Dublin Murder squad. After changing his name (he’s dropped his first name in favor of his middle name, Rob), he’s successfully left his past behind him. Well, maybe not so successfully. When he and his partner, Cassie Maddox, take on a child murder, Ryan is forced to face his past all over again.

The murder of a twelve-year-old girl named Katy Devlin takes Ryan back to his small Dublin town, to the very woods were his friends disappeared so long ago. Is this case connected to the unsolved mystery from twenty years earlier? The two detectives attempt to solve the murder of Katy Devlin at the same time Ryan searches the dark caverns of his memory, looking for a clue that will help him remember his past.

Narrating from some point after the close of the investigation, Ryan takes us through both his childhood (what he remembers of it, anyway) and the current investigation. He tells us from the beginning that he is not always reliable, a warning canny readers would do well to keep in mind. He opens his story by saying, “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked…I crave truth. And I lie.”

The first half of the book is the strongest, as French excellently weaves foreshadowing and red herrings, hinting and alluding but never ruining the suspense. We know something is coming, but never exactly what, and while the alert reader will pick up on things our rather naïve narrator overlooks, even the best of readers won’t see all of it coming.

Ryan is an intriguing narrator: deeply flawed and not always likable, Ryan falters and stumbles frequently. His account of life working the murder squad is fascinating, and at these moments, the depth of French’s research becomes clear. One of the strongest aspects of In the Woods is French’s ability to accurately depict the ups and downs of a murder investigation and all the myriad twists and turns it can take.

Another of French’s strengths is her knack for description, most clearly seen in her ability to powerfully evoke the dark atmosphere of the woods. Even better than her descriptive powers, however, is the fact that she knows when to stop. Where other authors might overdo it, engaging in pages of superfluous description, French deftly captures the essence of the woods in only a few sentences. In the following passage, Ryan explores the scene of his childhood nightmare:

It was like stumbling into the wreck of some great ancient city. The trees swooped higher than cathedral pillars; they wrestled for space, propped up great fallen trunks, leaned with the slope of the hill…Long spears of light filtered, dim and sacred, through the arches of green. Swathes of ivy blurred the massive trunks, trailed in waterfalls from the branches, turned stumps into standing stones. My steps were padded by deep, springy layers of fallen leaves; when I stopped and turned over a chunk with the toe of my shoe, I smelled rich rot and saw dark wet earth, acorn caps, the pale frantic wriggle of a worm.

While In the Woods is an enjoyable read overall, some parts of it do disappoint. Without giving too much away, I’ll say only that some parts of the story could be better resolved, such as the motive for the crime, which is a little clichéd. French also leaves some major issues unresolved. Although this lack of resolution will be unfulfilling for some readers, doing so could also be explained as a thematic choice.

If you like neat and tidy resolutions, you will in all likelihood be unhappy with In the Woods. Life doesn’t always come with closed resolutions, however. If, like me, you don’t mind novels that mimic such real-life uncertainty (even when such uncertainty disappoints), then you’ll enjoy In the Woods. With her debut novel, Tana French suggests she is a capable writer; hopefully The Likeness, her follow-up to In the Woods, improves upon the flaws of its predecessor and solidifies French’s status as one to watch.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

Suck It, James Patterson

In the Woods by Tana French / Jennifer McKeown

Books | August 20, 2008 |

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