A Detective, Darkly: A Review of Tana French’s In the Woods

June 22, 2008 at 2:22 (Books, Crime, Reviews) (, , , , , )

One Summer night, two decades ago, three missing children.  Peter, Jamie and Adam.  For them, the woods that reach around Knocknaree have been a home away from home.  They’ve picnicked in the ruins of an dilapidated old castle, made mischief in their favourite clearing, but they’re almost in their teens; adult enough, at least, to understand that change is in the air.  Jamie’s mother is about to send her to boarding school, and the children know that her looming absence will mean the end of the precious bond that ties them together.  They take to the woods.  It’s as easy a decision for them as A, B, C.

As day draws on and the evening gives way to a forbidding darkness, the police are called in to comb through the forest.  After hours of searching, aided by townspeople and fearful parents, they find only Adam, catatonic against a tree.  His shirt has two appalling tears through it; his shoes are sodden, black with blood.  He survives, but his memory fails.  Ryan grows up an amnesiac, unable to remember anything about the night his innocence was stolen – along, presumably, with the lives of his closest friends.

This snapshot of a countryside idyll shattered in an awful instant is only the beginning of something greater, but the intrusion of horror on normalcy informs much of Irish-born author Tana French’s astonishing debut.  Harrowing and haunting, to dismiss In The Woods as mere genre fiction is to the miss the point entirely.  Its principle character is indeed a detective: Adam Robert Ryan, all grown up – going now by his middle name but no closer to the truth of that fateful night.  The narrative, too, is driven in large part by an investigation that bears striking similarities to the events he has done so much to distance himself from – the disappearance and tragic death of a young girl, Katy: an aspiring ballet-dancer whose hopes and dreams are forfeit for the sake of some sick scheme.  She’s the daughter of a local man who’s been making noise about the development of a motorway through Knocknaree, so naturally there’s no shortage of corruption and conspiracy to navigate.  Where In The Woods sets itself apart from the by-the-numbers books that its genre is unfortunately rife with is in its clever use of some fairly standard devices.  At each turn French is positively gleeful in her subversion of our expectations.  There is, perhaps, something of Christopher Nolan’s oft-acclaimed Memento in the way the author turns insignificances and asides on their head to embellish new meanings upon them.  She’s meticulous in her documentation, but restrained enough that she never so much as startles the flow of the story; her sense of pacing is excellent, her plotting precise and yet elegant.

What’s most striking about French’s knowing first novel, however, is that it takes the time to develop an utterly convincing friendship which, by the end of In The Woods, has become as essential to the narrative as the closure of a case satisfyingly solved or a memory recovered at last.  In the Murder Squad, Ryan is partnered with an unpredictable element in any old-boy’s institution: a woman.  And what a woman.  French resists the usual means of addressing such issues, painting Cassie Maddox as fierce but unapologetically feminine.  She’s neither hateful nor haggard, but pretty and quick-witted – sassy, you might say.  In the workplace and indeed, the novel, she succeeds on her own merits, without resorting to the typical literary tropes of such situations, and her relationship with Ryan is nothing so simple as a Mulder and Scully will-they, won’t they; there’s certainly an element of that to it, but French acknowledges as much with a writerly tip of her hat and moves right along.  This aspect of In The Woods also impresses.  There are lulls in the investigation, of course, but the controlled pace with which the sordid story unfolds lapses only occasionally: when the list of suspects is exhausted, there’s always the recurrence of Ryan’s memories to move things along, or a fiery friendship to contend with.  A few timely discoveries aside, it’s a testament to the effectiveness of this convincing new author’s voice that the developments in each of the concurrent plot threads do not stand out as narrative conveniences.  French writes with an effortless authority that bodes well for the future of the crime thriller, although it wouldn’t be spoiling things to say the same cannot be said for her choice of narrator, who asserts at the novel’s very outset: “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective.  Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked…  I crave truth.  And I lie.”

On the other side of the experience of In the Woods, the brilliantly realised notion of Ryan as an unreliable narrator is the least of the novel’s myriad triumphs.  French’s debut has at least three endings, and she pulls them off with effortless panache; they are, at once, ambiguous, irrevocable, and fulfilling.  Let the further adventures of Detective Cassie Maddox roll on, because – wouldn’t you know it – there are startling signs of life left in the old genre after all.

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2 Comments

  1. Daniel said,

    Excellent take on In The Woods. Plan on taking this one with me on my next trip. See http://www.bentpage.wordpress.com for my latest travels.

  2. Niall Rough said,

    Many thanks for stopping by, Daniel. French’s debut is certainly a worthwhile addition to any holiday library – and if it sounds the right notes, you should consider The Likeness for the trip after the next trip. At risk of stealing some of the impact of In the Woods‘ climax, it’ll certainly be interesting to see how French takes what remains of her twosome forward. Especially in light of the narrative’s aftermath, I wouldn’t have pegged In the Woods as the start of a franchise, and I can’t say I’m entirely pleased that it’s developed as such – although I understand the benefits of an established audience well enough.

    Plus, it’s great to encounter a fellow Coca-Cola disciple! I’ll be keeping an eye out for your book to take on my own travels, later in the year.

    Forgive the indulgence, but I also wanted to cross-post a little of the discussion that the review has generated over on Blogcritics, when another reader picked up on a few points I was pleased to have the opportunity to clarify:

    “I don’t know that I would say that crime is a failing genre. Old, certainly, but if that were an offense I’d be guilty of it myself. My problem, if you want to frame it that way, is twofold: the ratio of gems to duds is – I think – decidedly unbalanced in favour of the latter, and despite the occasional standout, growing more so year on year. Again, though, in whatever medium and whatever genre you love, there’s inevitably a lake of mediocrity and out-and-out rubbish to wade through before you arrive at something genuinely worthwhile.

    “My real issue with crime fiction is that the formula its authors employ time and again seem to me a crutch. I appreciate that the concept of a formula doesn’t in itself necessitate some drastic overhaul, but in my mind it’s long past time for that formula to be challenged rather than simply adapted. I don’t agree that it’s acceptable simply to be substitute the particulars, and so many of the writers who dominate the genre appear content to treat their narratives like an afternoon of Cluedo: crafting the same old stories but this time, stop the presses, Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the conservatory was framed! I think we may have to agree to disagree that the genre has never been more vibrant. And that’s fine. A formula is only a problem when you’ve tired of it. For me, In The Woods reinvigorated the bullet points I’d grown wary of.

    “Mostly, though, I wanted to pick up on the idea that I’ve any kind of problem with genre. When I wrote that ‘to dismiss [In The Woods] as mere genre fiction is to miss the point’, the last thing I meant was to suggest genre fiction should be dismissed – only that, too often, it is, simply for its genre. I’m unapologetic in my love for crime, horror, fantasy and sci-fi – all genres sublimated on the suspicion that they share a selection of themes which are considered, on some level, low-brow, or outright inferior. It honestly angers me that so many critics and readers alike habitually sideline such novels, with no regard for their individual merits.”

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