Part mystery and part detailed character sketch and psychological portrait, In The Woods is a riveting and enjoyable read throughout. Three children disappear in the woods near their home in Dublin, Ireland in 1984, and later, only one child is found clinging to a tree with blood on his shoes and no memory, no matter how much he is questioned, of what happened. The missing boy is packed off to boarding school where he goes from Adam Robert Ryan to Robert Ryan, a drifter who finally focuses his life and becomes a detective, working his way up a spot on the coveted murder squad.
When a young girl turns up dead at the edge of those same woods he played in with his friends long ago, Rob knows that he should remove himself from the case, but he continues investigating with the careful and skeptical support of his friend and partner Cassie Maddox, one out of two of the only people who know his true identity. Rob has warned her to let him know if the case starts to affect him and his work too strongly, but feels sure that he is having flashes of insight and memory that may prove ultimately prove helpful in solving the new crime.
This novel was an interesting find for me. Sometimes with genre fiction I have the expectation that I am going to have to sacrifice quality of writing and/or depth of characters to get an interesting mystery story. That was not the case with Tana French’s compelling story. This detective novel/procedural is nothing if not character driven with several interesting twists on the usual unsolved mystery where the past comes back to haunt the seasoned detective.
One of the most compelling aspects of the novel is the unreliable narrator in Rob Ryan, who introduces himself with the warning that he lies. His cagey admission in the beginning of the novel adds another layer of suspense as at any given time you wonder whether he is telling the truth or if he is not telling the truth. If he’s not telling the truth you wonder if it is because he is purposely misleading you, or is he filtering the truth because of the horrific experience he had as a child, which even having no memory of the events, colors his entire life.
More than just a whodunit, this is the portrait of two fragile people who have come together to work as partners and who have over the years gotten to know each other and formed a deep friendship with an attendant bond. Though Cassie Maddox’s point of view is never explored she is carefully drawn and fully fleshed out to the reader through her friendship with Ryan. Unfortunately that friendship is put to the ultimate test in the course of the intense month long murder investigation which Maddox’s actions unwittingly brings to them one leisurely day in the office.
French’s characterizations are complex and drawn with great empathy and attention to detail. I sympathized almost equally with Ryan and Maddox as the case spiraled out of control and wreaked havoc in the personal lives of these detectives, each of them faced with intense personal and professional dilemmas. I was riveted and turned pages rapidly trying to figure how everything was going to turn out for everybody, though, I would caution those who like their endings nice and neat to think twice before picking up this wonderful psychological thriller. Loose ends abound.