May 27th 2008 (first published 2007) by Penguin
paperback, 464 pages
0143113496 (isbn13: 9780143113492)
rating: 3 of 5 stars
Tana French, the author of the mystery-thriller In the Woods, has a delicious way with words. I actually pulled out a pencil to underline brilliant lines, which I’m just going to unashamedly pour over you:
“I worry that I might come out of hypnosis with that sugar-high glaze of self-satisfied enlightenment, like a seventeen-year-old who’s just discovered Kerouac, and start proselytizing strangers in pubs.”
“I think I had a narrow escape: a couple of years further into the eighties and I would probably have been sent to kiddie counseling and forced to share my feelings with hand puppets.”
“The joy of the new, hip, happening, double-espresso Dublin is that you can blame any strange mood on coffee deprivation. This never worked in the era of tea, at least not at the same level of street cred.”
On an evening in 1984, in the woods around a small town near Dublin, three children go missing. The next day, one of them is found, clinging to a tree, with his sneakers full of blood. Twelve years later, 12-year-old Katy Devlin is found murdered in those same woods. Detective Rob Ryan teams up with a new partner, Cassie Maddox, to discover the strange circumstances of Katy’s death. What Ryan doesn’t tell his Captain is that he was the boy found alive, and that there may be a connection between his missing friends and the murdered girl.
I don’t usually read mysteries, because I’m paranoid and suspicious and I figure them out too quickly. It’s a game for me to see how early in an episode of Law & Order or Criminal Minds I can guess “whodunnit.” The premise of In the Woods intrigued me. Could I uncover clues and solve the mystery before Ryan and Maddox?
Well, yes. Yes, I could.
Reviewers of In the Woods herald French’s debut novel as having “tender characterizations,” (Seattle Times) with “nuanced characters and a richly detailed sense of place.” (Kirkus Reviews) “The beauty of the novel comes from French’s adept handling of character.” (Metro New York). There’s a reason her characters are what excited reviewers: her plot is utterly predictable (solid - no hocus pocus that lesser authors rely on - but predictable.)
I’d figured it out French’s who and why by the time the perpetrator was introduced. And the predictability is not the only drawback of this novel. Another detractor is that you lose respect for the narrator/protagonist Ryan by midpoint. Truly, Ryan is – well, an idiot. He’s a little taken with his learned-English accent (he’s Irish, of course) and his “beautifully cut” suits. What he does do is introduce us to Cassie Maddox, a delightful little package of wits and fire. As for Ryan himself, he spends quite a bit of time telling the readers that he wasn’t damaged by what happened in the woods in 1984 – really he wasn’t! – and then spending the rest of the time demonstrating how very much he was.
In the Woods did receive an Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. And, in spite of its drawbacks, I kept reading. In fact, I made it to the end, by which time I was convinced that all 429 pages were merely backstory to set up French’s next book, The Likeness the continuing story of Cassie Maddox. Not a bad way to spend 429 pages, actually, and The Likeness moves to the top of my wishlist.