“In The Woods” (2008) by Tana French won the Edgar award in 2009. This is her first book and it is apart of a series featuring Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox. “In The Woods” is rich in characterization and atmosphere. There seems to be a lot of varying opinions about the author’s first book. I’ve been told that I’ll either love her book or hate it. Well, guess what? I enjoyed this book although the ending was like everybody said it was: disappointing. Warning: A few plot points are mentioned as well as a major spoiler about one aspect of the ending that aggravated readers.
The story starts off with a brief summary surrounding a tragic event. To set the scene, imagine a grainy film reel, showing you a memory of someone’s childhood. In the summer of 1984 three kids from Knocknaree Dublin went into the woods but only one came back out alive. Sole survivor, Adam Ryan, can’t remember what happened to his best friends Peter and Jamie. At the scene where the police officers find Adam, there’s a lot of blood soaked in his shoes but he can’t remember what happened before the police found him.
Shortly after the disappearance of his best friends, Adam’s family packs up, moves and sends him off to boarding school. The memory of his friends disappearing in the woods haunts Adam 20 years later where the story picks up. Adam’s changed his name to Rob and is now a detective in the Murder squad. As much as Rob would like to forget the past, his first murder investigation takes him right back to the 1984 case.
A 12 year old girl is found murdered in Knocknaree, near an archeological dig in the same woods that took Jamie and Peter twenty years ago. Detective Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox are assigned the case. This will be their first murder investigation for the duo. Rob decides to withhold his involvement in the 1984 case after it’s revealed that there might be a link. No one knows he is Adam Ryan except his partner. This duplicity proves to be too much for Ryan. He keeps getting flashes of his friends but he can’t remember what happened to them.
Ryan narrates the story. The bulk of the book is about how Ryan tries to solve a murder case even though he struggles with the memories of the disappearance of his two best friends. Ryan is hoping that this current case will trigger a deeply buried memory. Can you imagine being the only survivor with two of your best friends missing and you can’t remember anything? Then there’s the unusually tight relationship between Rob and his partner, Cassie. As another reader has pointed out to me (and is correct), Ryan spent a good deal of the book telling us how close they are and how they almost manage to keep up a platonic relationship. Of course Ryan states at the start that he’s an unreliable narrator: He likes to lie.
But anyway, the murder investigation into the death of a young girl might be tied to a couple of things. One is an activist group called Move the Motorway. The victim’s father is the leader of the activist group. Many of the protesters feel that the land that the government wants to build a motorway on is sacred ground. They want them to build the motorway somewhere else. Another lead has the investigators looking more closely at the young girl’s family. Upon a closer look, they are dysfunctional.
So, what are my thoughts on this book? Entertaining but the ending fell apart. Believe it or not, despite the bad ending, I enjoyed enough of this book to give a B+. Tana French is on my auto-buy list. About that ending: I think what really made readers mad was that the author didn’t resolve the 1984 case. Guess what? I’m glad she didn’t. I wasn’t expecting her to resolve it. First of all, the lead character, Rob Ryan, couldn’t remember anything and still didn’t remember anything crucial in solving the case at the end of the story. Second, in real life cases like that aren’t easy to solve and remain unsolved.
I like Tana French’s writing style and voice. If you enjoy crime fiction that is character driven then this would be the book for you. “In the Woods” is followed by “The Likeness” and “A Faithful Place.” My grade for her debut: B+. Beginning is slow and this book is long. “In the Woods” read like a page-turner until I hit the last fourth of the book. I really want to dive into the next book but am tackling Alan Glynn’s Winterland now.