Review: In the Woods by Tana French

I was meant to read this book. Honestly In the Woods had everything I adore – a murder mystery; moody, quirky characters; long, descriptive sentences; a unique setting that becomes a character in and of itself.

First the mystery. A twelve year-old girl is found dead at an archaeological site that is about to get bull-dozed to make way for a new road. She was popular and had recently been accepted to ballet school, but her father is an outspoken opponent of the highway. The clues are there, but it’s a meandering investigation for the detectives in charge of the case. There are a lot of dead ends and many potential suspects. I liked how the story took it’s time, explored all the options. For a thriller, I found it a slow read, not because I was bored, but because the writing forced you to rake your time. It wasn’t one I could have rushed through.

There is a second mystery, too. One of the lead detectives, Rob Ryan, has an old connection to the town, Knocknaree. When he was a boy, he and two friends spent the day in the woods, but didn’t return home in the evening. Rob, with his shirt ripped and his shoes filled with blood, was the only one that was found by the search teams, but he can’t remember what happened. Ryan has kept his past a secret from almost everyone, but this case hits too close to home.

It is a character–driven mystery, with Ryan and Casssie’s decisions affecting the plot more than  the clues and suspects. Ryan is still haunted by what happened in the woods. As the narrator, he tells us what he knows, how he feels, his observations, but we know that the truth is not actually what he sees. It’s all distorted through his viewpoint, which I loved. He’s not unreliable, he fallible like the rest of us. His partner Cassie knows his secret and helps him to protect it. She’s a great character too, strong, loyal, fun. They are both dedicated to their job and how they interact with each other feels real.

I mentioned that I love the writing style, so let me give a couple of examples. I knew I’d be hooked from the prologue.

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping chants, One! two! three!

And again, when Ryan introduces himself at the beginning of Chapter 1.

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 more we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover’s ultimate Möbious strip: But I only did it because I love you so much.

I absolutley love that type of writing.

The setting is a small-town in Ireland. I think the author did a good job of showing us Ireland, but for me it was the small town that was striking. And the woods that  dominated the story. Beautifully done.

I will say that, unlike most mysteries, the end is not wrapped up in a tidy bow. There are still questions and you realize that the case’s consequences are not over, even if it is technically closed. Some people may not be satisfied with the ending, but I felt like it fit the book as a whole perfectly.

This one will be on my favorites list for the year. I don’t think it’s a must read for everyone, but it was for me.

Macavity Award for Best First Mystery Novel (2008)
Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author (2008)

Dublin Murder Squad #1
429 pages
First published 2007

5 out of 5 stars

Purchase at Amazon or an Indie bookstore.

Challenge: Mystery & Suspense

I received my copy through Paperbackswap and the above is my onest opinion.

15 Comments

  1. This was one of my favorite books a few years ago. I loved the writing style and the way it ended. Life isn’t always tiddy and neat and I don’t think mysteries should always be tied up with a bow. Sometimes they need to be ambigous and messy. I’m so glad you liked it.

  2. Melissa

    I absolutely loved this book when I read it sometime last year – French’s descriptive style had me hooked from the beginning! After finishing it, I ran out to get her second book, The Likeness (equally just as good, if not better). Nice review!

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