It’s often said that you can’t go back, but sometimes it would be wise at least to try. A murder detective with a forgotten past is at the center of Tana French’s tense debut novel In the Woods – a man whose lost memories collide with the present in what should have been an open-and-close case.
In 1984, three children disappeared in the woods next to their Dublin neighborhood. Only one boy is found, clinging to a tree in terror with blood-soaked shoes and no memory of what has happened. Twenty years later, the boy has grown into Detective Rob Ryan. He and his partner Cassie Maddox are sent to the very same woods to investigate and murder of twelve-year-old Katy Devlin, a local ballet prodigy. As the two detectives begin to interview potential suspects – including a father, mother and sisters who clearly aren’t telling all they know – they see connections between the two cases and wonder if solving one murder will solve the other.
Told in terse, unforgiving first-person through Ryan’s eyes, the 429-page volume certainly takes its time to develop. For a great deal of the novel, little progress is made in finding Katy’s killer. But French wisely sidesteps banality by focusing the book on the inner workings of her detectives – detectives with more personality and pathos than the average sleuth. Ryan is hardened by his experiences, but not because of the horrible things he’s seen. He is dark and he is a loner because of the horrible things he’s forgotten; he professes to Cassie that his life began at twelve. As he delves further into Katy’s case, flashes from his previous life strike him. But those final moments continue to elude him.
Ryan’s partner Cassie is as equally intriguing. French understandably doesn’t spend as much time explaining her psyche; the story is, after all, told from Ryan’s point of view and one gets the feeling Cassie wouldn’t be the type of person to blab about her feelings anyway. But French constructs a relationship between the two that is closer than close while eschewing any overly-predictable feelings of lust or unrequited love. The book’s main strength lies in the complexity of their need for each other. As Ryan spirals into a dangerous haze – trying to solve the case while hiding his connection to his own – Cassie’s importance becomes all too real. And even through we see the events through Ryan’s admittedly biased and unsure eyes, there is no question as to who is really there to help him.
Avid crime readers will be pleased, as well. The murder investigation moves along with just enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes without becoming ridiculous. When Ryan and Cassie begin investigating both crimes at once, the story becomes a bit muddled; fitting for Ryan’s frame of mind, but a bit frustrating for those who prefer a more straightforward story. Not that the storytelling isn’t unintentionally jumbled; aside from a few eye-rolling metaphors and stark images that seem like requirements in novels these days (people "moving back and forth among the trees as silently and intently as ghosts," etc.), French has a to-the-point, honest voice. The moments she tries to find poetry out of her situations are fleeting and far between. She’s interested in telling the story as plainly as possible.
Not to mention truthfully. The world French has created is not something out of Law and Order or Agatha Christie. Ryan and Cassie are solving a gruesome murder that has devastating effects on them and the people around them. The sobering finale is a testament to the "there are no real happy endings" view of life, especially when murder is involved. In an ideal world, the characters would deserve more. But Ryan doesn’t want to make himself into a hero. If nothing else, the story is a burden that he must tell in order to find peace.
With In the Woods, French introduces her knack for characters that will thrill readers of many types. Artfully balancing a gripping mystery with an honest and dynamic study of two flawed people, French easily maps out two stories without losing any of the tension or suspense she has built up. As the case boils down and Ryan sinks further into obsession with the Devlin murder and the disappearance of his friends, the question becomes not, Will the killer be caught, but Will Ryan survive? In making the detective himself as compelling as his case, French has crafted a unique debut showing truly a step apart from any average murder mystery.