Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, is fascinating, complex and ultimately leaves its different readers with many different impressions of how we are to view the main characters and what actually happens in the story.
In literary genre circles, this book is classified as a “police procedural.” The story takes place in and around Dublin, Ireland, where the weather, the atmosphere, the ethos of the place are almost characters in the plot. The book is narrated by Murder Squad detective Rob Ryan who, we discover early in the book, has an unsolved mystery at the heart of his life. His memory of the incident is gone. And he tells us, “Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery. I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light….It was these arcana I craved, these near-invisible textures like a Braille legible only to the initiated. They were like thoroughbreds, those two Murder detectives passing through Ballygobackwards; like trapeze artists honed to a sizzling shine. They played for the highest stakes, and they were experts at their game.”
Rob and partner Cassie Maddox, the only person other than Rob’s parents who knows about his relationship to this old unsolved mystery, are assigned a murder case involving a 12-year-old girl from the same suburb where Rob grew up and where the old unsolved mystery took place. Should he be investigating this new case? His doing so is absolutely against department regulations, but he and Cassie proceed anyway. Thus we begin a journey into the intertwining of these two stories.
We remember that Rob-the-narrator has also told us in the first line of the first chapter of the book: “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.” So, is everything that follows somehow “fundamental but cracked truth”? Are we part of a web of deception? Is Ryan himself part of that web?
This first book in French’s “Dublin Murder Series” is a highly satisfying read, open to interpretation and re-interpretation. Are there clues we have missed? What is the significance of the object found in the remnant of the woods, now an archeological dig, at the end of the story? Can we add up the brief flashbacks that Rob experiences during the course of the current investigation?
Read it yourself and see what you think.
— Jeanie Smith