This highly regarded mystery, now released as a trade paperback, marks a strong beginning for first-time novelist Tana French. Set in the suburbs of Dublin, In the Woods is a multilayered story that combines the gritty worldliness of a police procedural with the eerie chills of a psychological thriller.
Detective Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, must find a child-killer who has done his dirty work in the same woods where Ryan, twenty years before, was the sole survivor of a bloody incident that left him with a blanked-out memory. Looming on the horizon: the obliteration of the crime scene by a new highway.
Is the new murder related to the earlier disappearances? Are the anti-highway protesters involved? Will pursuing the case unlock Ryan's memory – and does he really want it unlocked? With both his sanity and his job on the line, this is much more than just another murder case for him, and French artfully maintains the dual layers of suspense.
In Detective Ryan's first-person narration, I detected hints that the author hadn't quite mastered the kind of literary voice one expects of a strapping male heterosexual policeman. There's no reason a sensitive guy can't also be a tough murder detective, but I found some of Ryan's observations and feelings – some of his adjectives, to be precise – a little on the feminine side. Reflecting on himself as a boy, Ryan observes, "that relentless child had never stopped spinning in crazy circles on a tire swing, scrambling over a wall after Peter's bright head, vanishing into the wood in a flash of brown legs and laughter."
However, the psychological depth and observational detail of French's writing bring the story vividly to life. Touches of humor keep the darkness at bay, too. Speaking of Cassie's arrival on the mostly-male murder squad, Ryan observes, "When she finally arrived, she was actually sort of an anticlimax. The lavishness of the rumors had left me with a mental picture of someone on the same TV-drama scale, with legs up to here and shampoo-ad hair and possibly a catsuit."
Cassie turns out to be nothing of the sort, but much more interesting, and the same is true of the book. A traditional mystery in some ways, it's also a thoroughly modern take on the genre, with memorable characters and settings, emotional highs and lows, and a climax that satisfies on some levels while leaving you frustrated on others. Any imperfections in the plot are more than balanced by the fine writing, especially considering this is a first novel. I'm looking forward to French's next book.
[Note: this article has also been published at Blogcritics.org and syndicated to Boston.com.]