Review: In the Woods by Tana French

by Rebeca on April 26, 2009

in-the-woods1In the Woods
by Tana French
Penguin Books
429 pages
$14.00
Published in 2007

Fans of psychological thrillers won’t be disappointed in Tana French’s In the Woods, a powerful and intelligent first novel. In this spellbinding story, French writes of three children who go out to play in the surrounding woods outside their Dublin suburb. Hours later, two of the children are missing and the third–a terrorized boy is found gripping a tree trunk with his t-shirt torn and sneakers soaked in blood–who can’t recall what happened to him or his friends.

Twenty years later that surviving boy, Detective Rob Ryan, is also the story’s narrator. Keeping the events of his past secret from his colleagues, with the exception of his partner and close friend Cassie Maddox, Ryan investigates the murder of a 12-year-old girl, a promising ballet dancer, in the same woods. With only faint and distant memories of his childhood, Ryan attempts to find the murderer and uncover the mystery of what happened to him and his friends.

Expertly plotted from beginning to end, French provides the reader with several twists and turns to keep one guessing throughout the entire story and questioning whether the two cases are related or not. French rarely drops any hints until two thirds of the way through the novel when Cassie, a former psychology student at Trinity, opens up to Ryan about her relationship with a classmate who was a sociopath. With this golden nugget of foreshadowing, the reader is left wondering who  among the suspects is profiled as a possible sociopath.

As primary characters, Maddox and Ryan play off each other beautifully with realistic back and forth, funny banter between two close friends, but French also weaves a sexual tension between the two that is finally consummated at a point during the case where Ryan starts remembering certain events that led to the day of his friends’ disappearance. While other writers might have had the two fall in love and solve the crime a la Nick and Nora Charles, French inserts a good dose of reality by having Ryan suddenly distance himself from Maddox, which ultimately destroys both the friendship and the working relationship.

Minor characters abound in the story, and French, who has a flair with characterization, has created nuanced and complicated individuals who are as vivid as Maddox and Ryan. Although their parts may be small, each one plays an important role in moving the story and Ryan’s current and past investigations forward.

French painstakingly depicts the grim realities of police work, the frustration of following up on dead-endleads, office bureaucracy and politics getting in the way, and the bittersweet taste of solving the crime and closing the case. In the Woods is not a happy story, but it is an engrossing mystery that will keep readers up late into the night with Ryan and Maddox.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary April 27, 2009 at 5:39 pm

I still need to read this. It’s on the shelf. I’ll come back and read your review when I finish.

Leah October 17, 2010 at 11:55 am

I absolutely adored this book! I was still thinking about the two intertwining stories long after I had finished reading, and although I was a little disappointed at the loose ends, I felt it was a great way to get the reader to create their own possibilities. I thought that the elder sister’s involvement was a little predictable, but it came as a great relief that both my suspicion and constant uneasiness at the mention of her name were justified! The depth in which the psychological effects of a traumatic childhood were explored were incredible and I thoroughly enjoyed this book! I’m still a teenager, but will be remembering this gripping plot for years to come :)

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