In the Woods is not a murder mystery. It was marketed as one, and it’s hailed as a preeminent example of crime fiction. But if you read this book expecting to solve both of its core mysteries or feel good about yourself for picking out all the baddies within the first few chapters, then you’re going to be disappointed.
What Tana French has done here is create a psychological character study disguised as a crime novel, and it’s one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. I’m already reading her latest, The Witch Elm, and I’ve picked up two more of her books.
In the Woods is the first of the Dublin Murder Squad series, each of which has a different protagonist. In this book, we’re thrown into the mind of Detective Rob Ryan, who’s the definition of an unreliable narrator. He even admits as much upfront. He’s a skilled liar, and his life has been irrevocably affected by an incident he experienced as a child. In the ’80s, he went into the woods in his hometown of Knocknaree, Ireland, with his two best friends. Several hours later, he walked back out with his shoes soaked in blood and his friends missing. In an attempt to perhaps protect him from breaking down completely, his brain has eradicated all memory of what happened in the woods, but when a new case forces him to revisit Knocknaree, things begin to crack open in much the way you would expect.
Except that nothing is really what you would expect. I can’t say too much without going into spoiler territory, but Rob is not a particularly likable protagonist. He lets his preconceived notions take over, and they’re often unjustified and unfair. He slips up on the job and devalues his relationships with people. His partner, Cassie Maddox, begins to wonder what’s going on in his head. I spent most of the book wanting to yell at him for being an idiot, but in the end, I realized that Tana French had spent over 400 pages expertly making me understand him, and that’s so much more complicated and ultimately satisfying than simply disliking him.
SLIGHTLY SPOILERY BIT BELOW!
There’s a paragraph late in the book when Ryan speaks directly to the reader and assumes that we were fooled just as easily as he was. This paragraph, designed to infuriate us, brilliantly reflects Rob’s character. He can’t get around the obstacles he has created for himself, which prevent him from seeing things as they really are. If he could do that, then maybe he could move on, but he’s comfortable with those obstacles. He likes them. They make him who he is, and change is scarier than that.
END OF SPOILERY BIT!
Bottom line: More character study than crime novel, In the Woods is still enjoyable for mystery lovers but is invaluable for readers who love losing themselves in beautiful prose and psychoanalyzing their favorite characters.