I can see in this book where everything I loved about The Searcher got its start. However, I am not sad to no longer be in the minds’ eye of Detective Rob Ryan. The narration of In the Woods is entirely in first person, he is telling the reader the story as it happened from somewhere in the near future. He opens the book by announcing that he is an unreliable narrator. It is both true and not, depending on how you define that style of narration. Mostly he is unreliable because he is always lying, actively hiding his identity from everyone around him, except his partner Cassie Maddox. We’re not seeing his experiences objectively, we’re seeing it the way he does, filtered through his thoughts, biases, fears, and desires. Rob is, in a word, a mess. French pulls at every bit of that mess to craft her story.
The book opens in the small Dublin suburb of Knocknaree in the summer of 1984. Three children do not return from the woods one August night and when the police arrive, they find only one of the children. He is gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours. The other two are never found. Twenty years later, the found boy is our narrator Rob Ryan is now a detective on the (fictional) Dublin Murder Squad who keeps his past a secret. But when a 12-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox (not just his partner but his closest friend) find themselves investigating a case distressingly like the previous unsolved mystery. Ryan has a chance to solve a grisly case, and possibly get some closure on his own traumatic childhood.
And that is the story that Tana French is telling, but it’s the barest of outlines – we’re with Rob, Cassie, and the rest of their assembled team through a month of investigating that takes them down paths uncovering all sorts of other crimes from 1984 and 2004 both. The copy I read had 425 pages and there is plot and character development on each of them, including the very last one. This is a very good book, but it was also a heavy reading experience.
There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of consensuses about exactly what type of book French writes: detective books, mysteries, psychological suspense are all possibilities and I think they’re all present here. Which when this book was published 15 years ago pushed the boundaries of what these genres can be and do. In many crime fiction books the central mystery is focused on discovering the murderer or other criminal. French is much more interested in who the detective is, what kind of person puts truth and its discovery above all else, and at what cost. French’s writing is consuming. There were also times where it was agonizing to read as the Knocknaree case wrecks Rob’s life, his career, his friendship with Cassie. But its in the how that French delivers these outcomes, by giving the reader something they may have thought they wanted earlier in the book, but by the time it arrives they see it for the self-destructive disaster it is, where the book becomes its heaviest, its toughest sit. It took me over a month to read this book, and not because I was savoring it. I needed time to recover between sections, time to deal with the oncoming train that Rob was jumping in front of.