When I first picked up Tana French’s In The Woods at JFK airport on my last trip to New York last October I envisaged it would tread similar territory to Edna O’Brien’s dark, claustrophobic In the Forest. After all, they’re both Irish crime books by Irish writers (who, in my opinion, even look alike, almost as if they are mother and daughter) with much the same titles, but that’s where the similarities end.
In the Woods lacks the literary flourishes that made O’Brien’s book somewhat difficult to read; instead you get a completely absorbing, rocket-fuelled narrative that zips along at Formula One pace. I read this in about two days while on a recent trip to Ireland and found myself thinking about the storyline long after I’d finished the book and repacked it in my suitcase.
The story, a police procedural, is told from the perspective of Rob Ryan, a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad (which, by the way, does not exist in real life), who has a secret past that only his immediate family knows about. When he was a young boy he was playing with two friends in the local woods, but when dusk arrived none of them returned for their evening meal and a search party was organised. Rob was found clinging to a tree with blood-filled shoes, so traumatised by whatever had happened to him and his friends that he was unable to recall a single detail. His friends were never found, and 20 years on, Rob is still unable to remember what happened.
This troubled history comes rushing to the fore, when Rob and his colleague, Cassie Maddox, are assigned a murder investigation involving a 12-year-old girl whose body is found near the very same woods from Rob’s childhood. Are the crimes linked? Could the perpetrator be the same person responsible for the disappearance of Rob’s friends?
This is the crux of this superbly realistic debut novel — and to say anything more would ruin the plot for those who have not yet read it.
What I liked most about this book is that it doesn’t come with a neat, well-rounded conclusion, which makes the story seem even more authentic, because how many murder investigations have neat, well-rounded conclusions? It makes you think, makes you fill in the gaps, makes you come up with your own theories and I cannot understand those readers who think they’ve been short-changed by this — and judging by the reviews of Amazon there’s quite a few.
My only quibble — and it’s a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of things — is the “voice” of Rob Ryan, which didn’t seem authentically male to me, but perhaps that was a deliberate device to explain why he got on so well with his female counterpart. In fact I couldn’t quite work out how I felt about their platonic, almost sibling-like relationship, because as much as it provided additional depth to the storyline, at other times it came across as slightly too cloying. Had neither of these characters discovered the concept of “me time”, I wondered.
In the Woods recently won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for Best First Novel, and I’m not surprised. It’s an astonishingly well written book by a first time author, one that grips you from various different angles — will Rob’s secret be discovered; will Rob have a nervous breakdown from the emotional, psychological stress of the investigation; what happened to his missing friends that fateful day in 1984; what happened to the girl who was murdered more recently? — and provides plenty of red herrings and dodgy clues, so that it’s almost impossible to guess the outcome. And the period details — of Ireland in 1984 and the vastly different New Ireland (before the very recent collapse of the Celtic Tiger) in 2004 — make the story seem particularly believable.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one, and will eagerly eat up her next one, The Likeness, which is lying in wait on my bedside table…