In the Woods, by Tana French

This debut novel has won many awards, and I can see why: it is beautifully written. The story is immediately interesting: two cases twenty years apart in the same small suburb of Knocknaree in Ireland. In the first, three children disappear while playing in the woods near their homes; only one is ever found, his shoes filled with blood and his memory gone. In the second, the found boy, now Detective Rob Ryan, investigates the murder of a young girl her body discovered by archeologists who are racing against the impending construction of a motorway to excavate a site in what was once the woods. Ryan, who has kept his past a secret, is joined by Cassie Maddox, his partner and the first woman to join the Murder squad, and Sam O’Neill, a cheerful, stocky young man whose uncle is a mid-level politician, which gives Sam an in for investigating the motorway contracts.

So there’s an interesting story, a variety of characters, and enough suspense to keep me reading late into the night. But what I loved about this book right from the start was the writing. In scraps of memory that come to Ryan, flashbacks, and conversation among the team, French brilliantly evokes childhood itself, what it is like to be ten years old, vaulting over the stone wall and running down the almost invisible paths that your feet know without your even thinking about it because you and your friends have been playing Indians and explorers and all kinds of other games in it all summer long. She reminds me of how foreign the world of adults seems, and of what those first unthinking friendships are like, deeper than blood. Most of all, she makes me feel again that sense of the magic of the world, that a tent of leaves could hide anything, a troll or unicorn. Things seem open-ended when you’re young, before you know how things work and what lies beyond the hill. Maybe beans can grow into the clouds; maybe a fish can grant three wishes; maybe the stories can actually come true.

These shreds of memory, while tantalising, are only a small part of the book, which is a police procedural, recounting the investigation of the girl’s murder. Here, too, French’s matter-of-fact story-telling is enriched by her description of the friendship between Ryan and Cassie, partners and pals, joking, teasing, taking the piss out of each other, backing each other up. During the investigation, their friendship expands to include (to a certain extent) Sam, but he is not part of the late-night swing dance classes on the roof or the desperate, early-morning calls for a ride home. French captures their easy camaraderie beautifully.

She also captures the give and take of the squad room. Like any office, the Murder squad has an efficient grapevine. There are alignments and alliances, mysterious shifts of power between Ryan and Superintendent O’Neill, as well as among the detectives themselves. There are the peculiar roles that some people take on in the culture of a particular office, like Quigley whose nose for weakness makes him hang like an albatross on new recruits, burnt-outs, and failures. There’s humor here, too, in the banter between Ryan and Cassie for example, to relieve, however briefly, the tension and boredom and frustration of the investigation.

Fundamentally, this is a book about telling the truth. Any investigation has to be about determining who is being open, who is hiding something, who is lying. Here, it is not only the suspects but the detectives themselves who wrestle with truth-telling and compromise: Cassie with her refusal to lie even in the interview room, Ryan with his lost childhood. Woods have long been a powerful metaphor for what is hidden, what is kept secret, what challenges and changes us. Think of the folktales documented by Grimm brothers, Robin Hood, John Fennimore Cooper’s stories, even 1986’s musical Into the Woods. In a smart move, French touches only lightly on these allusions, concentrating on this specific section of woods in Knocknaree and what they mean to one person, Rob Ryan, who lost his childhood there.

My problems with the book are minor. You always want the characters to grow and change in the course of a story, but some of Ryan’s transformations struck me as overly abrupt. Also, in a mystery, I want closure at the end, with all the puzzles unwound and the solutions laid bare. I don’t need retribution, necessarily, nor the kind of ending where every minor storyline ties neatly together. The answers don’t have to be spelled out for me, but I expect them to be there somewhere. Yet here some questions remain once the book is done.

However, in spite of this small frustration and Ryan’s sometimes incomprehensible behavior, this is an excellent mystery. I highly recommend it and have already gotten my hands on French’s next book.

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