In the Woods comes with a ton of expectations. With an Edgar award, a Macavity Award, an Irish Book Award, and the Strand’s award for best first novel, I cracked this book open prepared to be blown away. You would think a let-down was imminent, but instead I was up way past my bedtime two nights in a row, desperate to finish the novel but dreading not having any more to read. Good news on both fronts: the end was satisfying, a sequel was released this summer, and Tana’s publicist informs me that she is hard at work on a third. Not only was I satisfied, I get to go back for more!
Pure police procedural, In the Woods introduces us to detective Rob Ryan and his new partner, Cassie Maddox. The two young detectives land a big murder case outside of Dublin, but there are complications. The body of a twelve-year-old girl was found in the neighborhood that Ryan grew up in. The neighborhood he and his parents fled when he suffered a tragic experience of his own, back when HE was twelve years old. This new case forces him to confront a past he can hardly remember, with a conflict of interest that threatens his objectivity, his sanity, his friends and family, and maybe even his profession.
The detective duo cliche is mixed up a tad with the inclusion of a third detective, when the scope of the case becomes apparent. The relationship between Rob and Cassie is uniquely platonic, crushing another mystery novel cliche. And somehow their bond is the more powerful for it, an idea Tana captures in the following passage:
The girls I dream of are the gentle ones, wistful by high windows or singing sweet old songs at a piano, long hair drifting, tender as apple blossom. But a girl who goes into battle beside you and keeps your back is a different thing, a thing to make you shiver. Think of the first time you slept with someone, or the first time you fell in love: that blinding explosion that left you crackling to the fingertips with electricity, initiated and transformed. I tell you that was nothing, nothing at all, beside the power of putting your lives, simply and daily, into each other’s hands.
It is the wonderful bond that Tana creates in her first novel that makes this book rise above the rest. And it is the tension the reader experiences, as that bond is tested, stretched, and tearing that makes it impossible to put down.
One of the other things that Tana does well is take the reader even further behind the scenes of police procedures than normal. It aggravates me when characters in movies seem to never require bathing, never take a shit, and run for a week with perhaps a single, romantic meal. In the Woods absorbs you because the trifling details are sprinkled in with the rest. The reader really comes away with a sense of what is involved in solving a murder, and the true testament to Tana’s skill is that the boring bits aren’t ignored, while her description of them is anything but dull.
I’m a realism junkie, so these qualities draw me in deep. And even though the book scared me sometimes by flirting with the metaphysical, it always remained grounded and real. The characters were distinct from one another and incredibly dynamic. At the end of 400 pages, you are not dealing with the same individuals you were introduced to. Some of them soften, some harden, and some learn things about themselves and the world they live in that causes irreparable damage. It is a journey that sweeps the reader along and, I daresay, caused some change in myself, some insights that I may have to grapple with long after the book has been closed.
If you are sensing that yet another of my reviews is going to end up with a perfect score, thus calling into question the worth of my judgment as a reviewer, you are right and wrong. I can’t help it that I’m tossing “heads” so many times in a row, and trust me, you will miss these days when everything is coming up “ass”. In the Woods is indeed going to get my highest rating and loud recommendation, but I have an excuse. Really.
You see, I have this little theory about Tana French. Several of her characters betray autobiographical secrets. I suspect that Tana French is a literature nut, has devoured the classics, worships Shakespeare, and reads and writes poetry in unhealthy doses. I suspect this because, in order to explain her many allusions to the classics, she has had to infuse a passion for books in several of her characters. Since the work is told in first-person there was no other way for her to work in all the geeky literature knowledge she wanted to without giving some of her own predilections away.
She couples these tastes with an astounding vocabulary and a descriptive ability that should not have been wasted on our favorite genre. And here, I admit, is the reason that this book gets five stars from me: I could not read “In the Woods” without thinking that we should have lost this brilliant mystery writer to the snobby ranks of Pulitzer fiction. I don’t know what old films, or serialized TV show, or set of pulp books hooked her into our genre, but we owe that early experience our thanks. Writing as good as this will spoil you. It makes reaching for my next read, normally the highlight of my week, painful.
Grab a copy of this one and look forward to a review of her second book, The Likeness in the future. If she remains consistent, Tana French is going to be a star. Be sure to check out our interview with Tana French here.