highly lauded debut mystery novel combines the sophistication of a Peter
Robinson police procedural with the complexity of Kate Atkinson's highly
literary Jackson Brody detective stories, while it slyly manages to
turn many of the conventions of detective fiction on end. 'In the Woods'
is an immersive psychological suspense story, populated with exceptionally
well-developed and deeply engaging characters told in dense, rich prose.
With minimal on-screen violence but maximum chill, it is, quite simply,
In a suburb outside of Dublin, three pre-teen friends go off to play
in the nearby woods as they have many times in the past. When they fail
to return, police search the area and find only one terrified child,
Adam Ryan, his arms wrapped around a tree trunk, his shoes filled with
blood. Ryan has no memory of what transpired between the time he went
into the woods and the time he was found. Some twenty years later, Adam
Ryan has changed his name to Rob Ryan and is a detective on the Dublin
murder squad. When 12-year old Katy Devlin is found murdered in the
exact same woods, Ryan partners with the newest member of the murder
squad and close friend, Cassie Maddox, to investigate the case.
Ryan is the first-person narrator of this story and his first sentence
warns us "to remember … that I am a detective. Our relationship
with the truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like
fragmented glass". That's a succinct and telling summation of the
terrain that lies ahead. Ryan's observations are slippery, sometimes
brilliant and intuitive and other times clouded by his personal demons
or thwarted by his repressed childhood memories. Cassie is both his
companion and his foil, a strong but secretive detective with a lively
sense of humor and a well-grounded, pragmatic sense of the world. Rob
and Cassie's relationship, a mix of comfortable camaraderie, sly in-joke
humor, and sincere affection anchors the narrative and involves the
reader in a very personal way with the unfolding events.
The historical mystery both informs and circumvents the present-day
story. The contemporary mystery initially flows like a classic police
procedural, filled with blind alleys and dead ends, populated with characters
that seem suspicious, if not outright guilty, and those who are flawed
but basically good. But the classic feel changes dramatically as the
story nears completion and the ending, while fair and fully believable,
is unsettling, surprising, and sad.
French takes her time telling this character-driven story, slowing revealing
ever more information about the key players and expanding details about
the events of both the past and the present which form the crux of the
narrative. While the pacing is languid, there's a persistent sense that
something untoward is soon to come. French's descriptive, flowing prose
encourages the reader to savor this slower pace, while never loosing
that suspenseful knot in the stomach that marks a superlative crime
story. All in all, 'In the Woods' is a great find - a crime novel not
to be missed.
French's second novel, 'The Likeness' featuring many recurring characters,
has just been released in hardcover.