In the Woods by Tana French: A review
How is it that I have never read Tana French? Time to remedy that oversight.
I recently read in The New York Times online a review of French's latest book, The Trespasser. It sounded fascinating and I wanted to read it right away, but then I digested the fact that this is the fifth book in a series and my reader OCD kicked in. Of course, I could not start a series at the end. I am constitutionally unable to do so. One has to start at the beginning. And that's how I came to pick up the first entry in French's Dublin Murder Squad series, In the Woods.
This book won all kinds of literary awards when it was first published in 2007 and, from my perspective having now finished reading it, all the awards were well-deserved. It is a marvelously well-written book that tells a powerful story through the actions and relationships of interesting if imperfect characters.
The story is told in first person voice by Detective Rob Ryan of the Dublin Murder Squad. He introduces himself to us by saying that he is a seeker after truth and that he lies. It's a description that it is important to keep in mind throughout.
Ryan is hiding a dark secret. Twenty years before, when he was known as Adam Ryan, he was at the center of a mystery involving three children who disappeared one summer evening in woods in a Dublin suburb. Ryan was later found, his body pressed tightly against a tree with his nails dug into the bark. His shoes were full of blood and he was in a near catatonic state. He could not remember what had happened. The two other children were never found and the mystery never solved. Ryan still maintains that he cannot remember what happened and he keeps the secret of his past from his associates and superiors on the Murder Squad. All except his partner and best friend, Detective Cassie Maddox.
Now, a 12-year-old girl's murdered body has been found in those same woods and Ryan and Maddox are assigned to the case. The new murder once again raises questions about what happened in that long-ago case. Could there really be two child murderers in this small town or are the cases somehow related? How and why? These are some of the questions that Maddox and Ryan have to answer.
The girl's body was found in an area where an archaeological dig is taking place in advance of a new roadway being built through the site. Some locals are protesting against the building of the proposed roadway there and it turns out the murdered girl is the daughter of the leader of the protest against the roadway. The detectives must consider the possibility that the murder may be a warning to the protesters.
Weeks go by and the diligence of the Murder Squad has yielded no results. Everyone's nerves are frayed to the breaking point. French does a chilling job of conveying the strain, particularly the strain on the relationship between Ryan and Maddox that heretofore had been rock solid.
When the break finally comes, it is due to an insight by Ryan and yet it seems that he can't see the forest for the trees. (Ach! Please forgive the woods pun! I couldn't resist.) The truth turns out to be even more horrible than anyone - except Maddox who suspected all along - could have imagined.
French's plotting and exposition of this crime fiction/psychological thriller is just brilliant. Her writing shows the skilled hand of someone who one would swear was a much more experienced writer, and yet this is her first book. She set the bar very high for herself. I intend to investigate whether she has lived up to that standard in her succeeding books.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars