In the Woods by Tana French
Published in 2007
Genre: Mystery, thriller
“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s.”
If you enjoy this idyllic vision of a summer day featuring the laughter of children in the background, Dixie cups filled with Kool-Aid mix lemonade, and the well-earned scrapes and bruises from an afternoon of playing, do not continue reading. In the Woods, written by Tana French, twists this picturesque scenery it into a crime novel that takes the reader on a journey down the dark paths of malleable memory and the little lies we tell ourselves to make it through each day.
In the Woods begins with a disclaimer by the narrator; he says that he will lie in the pursuit of justice, so the reader should not trust him. The narrator, revealed to be Detective Adam “Robert” Ryan, is one of three children who went missing from the town of Knocknaree, Ireland in 1984 during that coming-of-age film summer. He was the only one recovered and suffered from memory loss; since he was unable to help the police and with no leads to pursue, the case was closed.
Jumping twenty-some years later, the novel details Rob’s history as a detective and explains the close relationship between himself and his partner, Cassie. They are brought to Knocknaree to investigate the murder of a 12-year-old girl named Katy whose body was found at an archeological site nearby; this is the first time that Rob has been back to his hometown and he recognizes the eerie parallels to the disappearances in 1984. Gruesome facts are revealed as Rob and Cassie follow leads and investigate the family.
Though investigation takes a month to complete, there is a gradual breakdown in Rob’s life due to setbacks and the lack of a suspect in the case, as well as a change in the dynamic between him and Cassie. Adding to these difficulties, the disappearance case from the past keeps coming up, but Rob wants to keep people from realizing he was one of those children since it would cause him to be thrown off of the current case.
The characters in the story are rendered in exquisite detail and this is showcased in the relationship between Cassie and Rob. French shows us why they work so well together by exhibiting their chemistry, their similarities, their differences, and how they can combine each to form a cohesive unit that is dangerous for suspects. The descriptions of Rob, Cassie, and Sam (a fellow detective on the case) are so vivid that reading them is like watching a film montage; a prime example is the description of their nightly ritual of cooking dinner, going over the case, having a few drinks, and talking into the early hours of the morning only to catch a few hours of sleep before heading back to work.
French’s prose benefits from her penchant for dropping details into what could have simply been mundane description; a standout example of such innocuous information bringing credibility to the story is when a safety vest at the dig site is described as having “Insert foot here” and an arrow pointing down written on the back. This tiny detail adds a sense of realism to the story; the people working at the dig like to prank one another and there is a sense of camaraderie. French also stands out in how she portrays the interrogations; they are like a dance with one detective leading, probing, and then backing off of a subject leaving the other to match steps and apply or relieve pressure as needed. The detectives distract the suspect in order to catch them off guard and pull a confession out, no matter how hard it writhes in their grip.
In the Woods deals with the little lies we tell ourselves, the fallibility of recollection, and how we often forget this aspect of memory since we tend to depend upon it so heavily. It is extremely important to keep the disclaimer and the narrator’s admission that he lies at the beginning of the book in mind. The book is written in a way that allows the reader to lapse into taking Rob’s every word at face value because of the technique of a semi-stream of consciousness narrative told in retrospect; this is only interrupted a handful of times to remind the reader of Rob’s propensity toward bending the truth.
There are some parts of this novel that are difficult to read; it deals with some heavy subjects such as rape, pedophilia, murder, and mental psychosis. However, without these aspects and French’s skill in approaching them in a way that is appropriately unsettling, In the Woods wouldn’t be as enticing or thrilling as it is. This is a masterfully crafted novel that plunges into its pace with confident intention, keeps the reader entertained, and brings everything to a realistic, if not optimistic, ending.
Verdict: 4 twisting and turning tales out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of well written prose, those who enjoy having their expectations surpassed and shattered simultaneously, people who like their police procedural stories with a bit more grit, and you!
Not recommended for: Children, the weak of stomach, people who dislike Ireland, or those easily discouraged by a rather pessimistic story that is strangely hopeful.