In the Woods
Penguin Press, Trade Paperback 2008
“True!–nervous–very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
“The Tell-tale Heart,” Edgar Allen Poe
“What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie.”
In the Woods, Tana French
Has this ever happened to you? You read a review of a book somewhere. It’s glowing. In fact, there are many glowing reviews. Maybe the book even won an award. You run down to your local bookstore, buy a copy, and start reading, but something is subtly wrong. Did you get a book with a similar title, or similar author’s name, that isn’t the book you read about? Did you pick up an alternate-universe copy by mistake? What happened?
Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot to like about In the Woods, a lot. I’m even going to say I recommend it. Still. . .I can’t quite believe that it’s the book that got those reviews.
The first thing to like is French’s prose, so rich and textured that in spots it rises off the page as if embossed. The next thing to like is the homage to Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River.
The thing to love, the thing that is magic, is the partnership of the two homicide detectives, Cassie Maddox and Rob Ryan. The way they function as a team, whether it’s interrogating a suspect or manipulating their boss, is sheer beauty, at least in the first two-thirds of the story.
Rob Ryan, our first-person narrator, is a smooth chameleon who has built his murder-cop persona from the outside, by choosing the right clothes, the right accent and all the right moves, until he somehow, in defiance of the Dublin cop tradition, becomes friends with Cassie Maddox, the “token woman” on the Murder Squad. The two are partnered, even though both are rookies. One morning they catch a call. The body of a girl has been found at an archeological site in a woods that is being clear-cut so that a new motorway can go through. The wood edges the town of Knocknaree.
The two of them take the case, even though it’s the last case Rob should ever work. Twenty years ago in Knocknaree, on a summer day, three children disappeared in those same woods. Two of them were never found. Days later, one was recovered, clinging to a tree, catatonic and amnesiac, his shoes soaked in blood. Rob was that child.
The present-day murder is more concrete. A twelve-year-old girl is found posed on a Bronze Age ceremonial stone. She has been dead for a day or more, and the murder weapon, a rock, is found nearby. Also found nearby is a plastic hairclip that is identical to the one Rob’s friend Jamie was wearing when she vanished twenty years ago.
Cassie alone knows about Rob’s background, and they decide to continue with the case. There is no good reason for this, and plenty of compelling reasons not to, if the two cases do turn out to be somehow connected. This is not an unusual problem in police fiction and French makes the usual effort to address it, which is to say, none. Rob and Cassie visit the family of the murdered girl, where they realize at once that something is seriously wrong. The victim has an identical twin who barely speaks, a suspiciously mature older sister, an emotionally dissonant mother and a father who will prove to be connected to Rob’s childhood nightmare.
In short order French has laid out three possible motives; a slow serial killer with a twenty-year break; a need to keep the victim quiet about something, perhaps sexual abuse; or a political motive involving big money and a protest group trying to stop the clearing of the woods for the motorway.
The death of the Knocknaree girl triggers post-traumatic stress in Rob. When the black, opaque floodwaters of madness are swirling across the threshold and up the walls of his paper-mache persona, the book is taut and suspenseful. Is this murder related to the disappearance of Peter and Jamie? What does the hairclip mean? What is the meaning of Rob’s suddenly exacerbated startle responses, the flickering images he sees at the corner of his vision, and sound like beating wings that he, and then later others, think they hear?
One night, drinking himself to sleep, Rob hears screaming. He opens his window, trying to locate the sound, and sees a dog fox emerge from the shadows. The animal pauses, scents the air, and trots away. Rob realizes that what he heard was the fox’s cries. Much later, while he and Cassie are returning from an interview, Rob brakes hard to avoid hitting a dark animal, perhaps a weasel or a stoat, that streaks across the road. He nearly puts them in the ditch. Cassie asks him what’s wrong, because she saw no animal. Only then does the reader pause to question the appearance of the fox.
When French is doing this kind of thing, the book is compelling. Unfortunately, she doesn’t stay with it. Early in the book the astute mystery reader recognizes a character that I will call, for convenience’s sakes, The Villain. The Villain may not have actually committed the murder—in fact the discovery of the literal killer is quite interesting—but is responsible for setting the murder in motion. Once we’ve recognized The Villain, it is impossible not to become impatient with Rob and Cassie when they willfully fail to do the same.
Here are the character flaws we’re dealing with; Rob is a doofus, and Cassie has no boundaries. If these were flaws the characters had to face in themselves, or overcome, the book would work completely. Unfortunately, these are not the character flaws French chooses to address. There is a non-sexual physical intimacy between Cassie and Rob that is never explained unless you decide, retroactively, that Cassie was secretly in love with him all along, which is not supported in the story.
A third character is added to their partnership as an escape hatch for Cassie, as Rob’s fully-expected meltdown goes into full burn. Briefly, with the third partner, the story segues into an exploration of the political motive. Aside from functioning as a distraction (“Look! A shiny thing!”) this subplot serves only to embody some kind of jaded, cynical, post-modernist Irish artistic credo: Everyone is conflicted; most people are corrupt; innocence will be defiled; deal with it.
I would deal with it, honestly, if I weren’t growing more impatient with our first-person narrator by the minute. At least four times Rob tells us that Cassie “gave me a long look I couldn’t decipher,” or “a look I couldn’t read,” or “a long look I couldn’t read.” About the third time, Rob should be saying, “What?” and everybody knows it. And Cassie, who lets him sleep in her living room and rescues him from every scrape, should be seriously considering getting a new partner.
These problems could have been addressed by choosing third-person point of view. The distance of third-person, even a close third-person, would make Rob’s flailing and floundering more poignant and less like the maunderings of the drunk in the seat next to you on an airplane. French is trying for the time-honored literary device of the unreliable narrator here, but the trick of the unreliable narrator is that you have to believe them about something.
As for French’s resolution of the twenty-year-old mystery, that is purely and simply a failure of nerve.
Just as I’m about to throw in the towel, however, I remember passages like this:
“The woods had never been more lush or more feral. Leaves threw off dazzles of sunlight like sparklers and the colors were so bright you would live on them, the smell of the fertile earth amplified into something as heady as church wine. We shot through humming clouds of midges and leaped ditches and rotten logs, branches swirled around us like water, swallows trapezed across our path and in the trees alongside I swear three deer kept pace with us. I felt light and lucky and wild, I had never run so fast or jumped so effortlessly high; one shove of my foot and I could have been airborne.(TF, 281)”
. . .and French seduces me back. The errors of the book are correctable errors, and despite my quibbling, I will probably read her next book, The Likeness, just to give her another chance to live up to the power of her prose.