Title: In the Woods
Author: Tana French
Publisher: Penguin Books
Date: May 27, 2008 (First published May 17, 2007)
Genre: Mystery / Fiction
Format: Paperback / Audiobook
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
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As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox—his partner and closest friend—find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.
Richly atmospheric and stunning in its complexity, In the Woods is utterly convincing and surprising to the end.
In the Woods on Goodreads
In the Woods, the first book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, has garnered a broad spectrum of praise and criticism over the past decade. Like many mystery novels, In the Woods has not been immune to the issues many readers find divisive, such as: the writing style, the nature and unraveling of the mystery, and character development. For me, the story worked and I had few complaints.
French presents us with two mysteries: one from the past and one in the present, both set in the Irish town of Knocknaree and both dealing with the murder and disappearance of children. Further linking the two cases together is the main character and narrator, detective Rob Ryan, who as a child was found alone in the woods with blood-soaked shoes and trauma induced memory loss. Despite the ethical issue of investigating a case he has a personal stake in, Ryan agrees to take on the new Knocknaree case with his partner Cassie Maddox.
As they dive further into Katy Devlin’s murder, some of Ryan’s lost memories begin to surface and he hopes that by cracking the present day case he will finally uncover the mystery of his past. But in the end, only Katy Devlin’s murder is solved (although justice is unsatisfactorily served), and Ryan’s past remains hidden behind a veil of trauma. Although I was a little disappointed that both cases were not solved by the conclusion of the book, I felt that French handled the lack of closure well and left readers with the same ominous fear of the the woods she began with.
French’s style is unlike other mystery novels I’ve read; her writing is complex, atmospheric, and draws the reader in beyond the surface of the mystery. In other words, if you’re looking for a simple “whodunnit” mystery this isn’t the book for you. In the Woods is a slow burn with many flashbacks and asides that add layers to the story and propel the mystery and the characters forward.
In terms of the characters, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox (to a lesser extent) are flawed, a fact that French draws attention to from the get go when Ryan states, “I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked…we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation of deception,” (pg. 3). With that said, Ryan’s character was not entirely like-able. The choices he made in his professional and personal life were almost entirely questionable from an ethical standpoint – perhaps a result of his past trauma? And while French did not conclude the book in a neat little package for him, I don’t see how it could have possibly ended any other way.
In the end I rated this book 4 stars and I’m excited to dive into the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad novels. From what I hear you don’t have to read the books in order, but that is what I plan on doing. Give this book a chance if you love murder mysteries with a layered plot and a rich atmosphere that leaves you chilled even after you turn the last page.
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