Book Review: In the Woods by Tana French

What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this — two things: I crave truth. And I lie.

I have had this one kicking around for a while, with it’s pretty cover and all the accolades I’ve glanced at about it, but it wasn’t until last month, in the midst of running around and missing my family and the approach of the post-Halloween Christmas season that I turned to an old staple on my bookshelves: the Murder Mystery. Murder Mysteries and Romances are probably the novels most evident on my bookshelves. There is something comforting in both, for me anyway. The twists and turns of a murder plot – even one only half resolved or one that leaves a few gaping plot holes, are an expected treat that lulls me into that cozy spot of tranquility.

Also, I love anything that makes the narrator in my head sound like Cillian Murphy.

And since this book is set in Ireland – oh yeah, baby.

Anyways, here’s the plot from Goodreads:

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.

There were a few things that attracted me to the plot – first, the enduring mystery of an unsolved case from the past; second, the boy who lived; third, the buddy cop investigation when a body turns up at – fourth, an archeological dig. Also, Ireland. Always Ireland.

So, I picked it up last month and dived in.

Our narrator is a slippery fellow. At first Rob Ryan (formerly Adam Ryan) seems pretty sympathetic – he’s young(ish), survived an unknown tragedy in his past and managed to make a life for himself nonetheless. But it is a life steeped in the memories and assaults of the past – a life as a homicide detective, with no one knowing who he is or who he was, and a work partner that understands as much as he’s willing to give in Cassie. The above quote I took from the book is the crux of the unreliable narrator – How much do we believe of what he says? Ryan does, at least, warn us that he is both those things – a liar and a truth seeker.

Ryan is also very much the type of narrator that takes over your personal space – when you are reading his words that engulf you, and you live his life. You feel the dampness of your socks as he trudges along through the mud at the site, feel the flash of weariness as he drives up to the place he left so long ago and the fear-mixed-with-longing to know what happened to him and his friends so long ago. It’s hard to put down this type of book as you feel like the narrator is accounting to you the story of his or her life, and any pause or break will have them recant it all and run away. There’s a suddenness to it, an alarming quality.

The situation itself is also hurried – the two detectives are called out from playing games on their computers to actually run around to a little rural community in Ireland and investigate the body of a young girl found on a rock the local archeological dig has dubbed a “sacrificial altar”. From the time Maddox and Ryan set foot in Knocknaree there is an urgency in everything – they are told from the outset that the archeological dig is winding down it’s survey – being forced to shut down, some would say a little prematurely, due to the government’s desire to put in a motorway across Knockneree. All the evidence, the crime scene and all of Ryan’s own memories are in danger of being tampered with in a way that leaves us feeling like time is always running out.

And the urgency grows when we keep running into more and more characters that all have secrets – as small towns inevitably do.

Ryan dips into his own seldom used memories and all the people he recognized from his past in order to create the atmosphere of Knocknaree – not only in solving the case at present, but the case that was in his youth. There are times when, on the cusp of a discovery, the whole book seems to grow heavy with promise and darkness, but it stays somewhat methodical, with Ryan being that unreliable narrator, and the voices around him all being questionable.

The cast of suspects that revolve around Ryan has an almost cartoonish quality – going from caricature to very real with heartbreaking slowness, as the reader sits, ensnared by Ryan’s account, unable to investigate his or herself, but being forced to wait patiently for the fruits of Ryan’s labours. This is a most frustrating position, being a murder mystery lover like me, anyway. The main character inevitably runs in one direction while all your instincts scream the other way – and you must go through their investigation, fumble along with them in hopes of some answers to your questions.

And this is where I knock myself sideways.

Beware – there are spoilers ahead.

Still here? Okay. [Entering Faded colour mode]

You will not get the answers you seek from this book – there is no real resolution with a bow tied around it and a promise of future justice that float off the last pages. The ending will leave you frustrated and raw and wanting to run out and get the next book in the Murder Squad series to find some sort of answers … I am still thinking about it, still puzzling over it.

Also, I will warn you – the main character is not very much likeable. At all.

That  being said, the book itself is genius – there is so much inrtigue to the case, the ideas and the mechanissms of all the characters filtered through Ryan and digested through the book into something that leaves you wondering which parts were honest, which were not and what lied between. It is a brilliantly atmospheric book – the cold, damp, darkness of the Irish countryside on the cusp of being connected to the city was palapatble and gritty. It is, in short, a worthwhile read.

I will start the second book, The Likeness, as soon as I finish reading the entirety of the Louise Penny Inspector Gamache series (what can I say, I feel homesick these days – even for Quebec), and with any luck, after that, will track down a copy of the third, Faithful Place (or if it’s out, the fourth, Broken Harbour), all detailing an adventure of a character from the previous book, so in case of the second book – we have Cassie Maddox as our narrator (something I am very much looking forward to).

Until then, I am confusedly yours,



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