Novel: In the Woods by Tana French

I went into Tana French’s debut mystery In the Woods (2007) looking for a break from my usual rotation of espionage and futurism, but it ended up taking me completely by surprise. A gripping, pitch-dark police procedural full of psychological suspense, it sucked me in and kept me thoroughly immersed throughout.

Set in Ireland, it deals with the investigation of a child murder in the suburban community of Knocknaree. Rob Ryan, a regular-joe detective on the Dublin murder squad, ends up catching the case with his spirited partner Cassie Maddox—but, too late, realizes that the location may stir up dark memories. As a child, Rob’s two best friends disappeared near Knocknaree while Adam was in the woods with them, and he came out of the experience with a massive hole in his memory and a nasty case of PTSD. Still, he puts his head down and soldiers into the work, embroiling himself in the life of the victim and her highly dysfunctional family. As he and Cassie make gradual, frustrating progress, their complex partnership undergoes painful stresses, and the details of the case force him to confront the demons of his past—jeopardizing his career and putting him under enormous psychological pressure.

In the Woods doesn’t look all that earth-shattering at first glance. It’s a fairly conventional murder mystery about beleaguered detectives working a tough case. My initial impression was of an accomplished, literary take on NYPD Blue or Homicide (at their best), with all their procedural rhythms and an Irish twist. Frankly, that probably would have been enough to sustain me through an entertaining read.

But it ended up being much more engrossing than that. French definitely paints a rich, authentic picture of an epic murder case. She deploys all the classic tools: a vivid, well developed supporting cast of co-workers, witnesses, and suspects; intriguing clues, details, red herrings, and investigative dead ends; and a perfectly clocked, escalating plot of twists and reveals. In the end, though, it was the characters that sold it. Rob’s twisted-up emotional issues and not entirely reliable narration are extremely well executed, as is his complicated, nuanced partnership with Cassie. The novel isn’t just about the tragic brutality and evil they’re forcing themselves to work through, but about their own mutual, destructive journey through it together—the transforming emotional impact of this work on them as individuals and as partners. By the end, I was anxious to see the mystery solved and the motives explained, but I was just as anxious to learn the fates of the troubled heroes whose lives were turned upside by the case. The last third of the book kept me up late, and left me extremely anxious to read on in the series. An extraordinary debut.

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