Sunday, February 1, 2009

In the Woods by Tana French

My mind sideslipped and spun. Every step set recognition thrumming in the air around me, like Morse code beating along a frequency just too high to catch. We had run here, scrambling sure-footed down the hillside along the web of faint trails; we had eaten streaky little crab apples from the twisted tree, and when I looked up into the whirl of leaves I almost expected to see us there, clinging to branches like young jungle cats and staring back. At the fringe of one of these tiny clearing (long grass, sun-dapples, clouds of ragwort and Queen’s Anne lace) we had watched as Jonathan and his friends held Sandra down. Somewhere, maybe in the exact spot where I was standing, the wood had shivered and cracked open, and Peter and Jamie had slipped away.

First things first: READ THIS BOOK. I’ve never felt more comfortable recommending a story to anyone who’ll listen to me. Really, no matter what kind of reader you are, I bet you’ll thoroughly enjoy In the Woods by Tana French.

In the Woods is a police procedural novel set in present day Dublin. The protagonist and narrator, Rob Ryan, finds himself investigating the murder of 12-year-old Katy Devlin of Knocknaree. Ryan must solve the case without alerting his superiors to his personal connection to the case. 20 years earlier, Ryan and two of his friends went missing in the woods of Knocknaree. A police search eventually turned up the twelve-year-old Ryan, wide-eyed with blood-filled sneakers and mysterious scratches on his person. His two playmates were never recovered. Now Ryan must discover why Katy was found bludgeoned to death on an ancient Druid sacrificial altar just outside the very woods where he lost his friends.

I’ve never been a big crime drama type guy. Law and Order doesn’t really do it or me and I could never get into the hundreds of James Patterson and John Sanford crime thrillers that stock my mom’s bookshelf. And really that’s exactly what In the Woods is, a standard police procedural: Someone commits a crime. The detectives investigate the crime. They find their suspect! But wait, they were all wrong! Dead end. Eureka! A new suspect! Crime solved. I don’t say this to take away from the narrative itself. In fact, Woods has a really interesting plot with some good red-herrings and twists thrown in. But the story itself is far from ground-breaking. One thing about the plot, though, that was particularly well done was the subliminally supernatural tone. Nothing about Katy’s murder or any of the investigation lead you to believe that this is a Stephen King-type story with a monster on the loose. But certain details of Ryan’s friends abduction and his rescue keep that window slightly ajar. As if you wouldn’t be totally shocked if the story ended with some sort of werewolf conspiracy (which it sadly does not).

No, the beauty of In the Woods is all in French’s style. Her dialogue is fresh and realistic. There’s none of the melodramatic, hard-boiled bull-crap you almost expect to get in a crime drama. Or perhaps that’s that fair to say. You get a lot of the stuff you expect in a crime drama. Good cop, bad cop. Commanding officers behind desks questioning tactics and threatening to “take your gun and badge so quickly your head will spin.” Interrogation room scenes with jumpy suspects. The more I think back on it, the more cliché a number of things in the story were. I think the genius is in French’s ability to show you those clichés through the eyes of a player fully aware of those clichés. Ryan and his partners just come across as completely normal people who play the role of ‘television cop” when they find it necessary. Ryan explains his quick rise from uniformed officer to detective as having occurred because “he looked the part.” French’s characters are all too aware of the stereotypes and caricatures of police officers. And unlike the characters of so many other crime novels, they only use them to their advantage. They don’t live them.

I also enjoyed French’s uses of pop-culture references. A lot of times, things like that strike me as annoying for forced. As if the writer is trying too hard to relate to the reader. Maybe other’s will feel that way about French’s writing, but to me it just felt natural. Every random Simpsons or South Park reference felt appropriate. The detectives skipping lunch to play Worms on their computers or getting hammered and playing Cranium succeeded in making these characters seem flesh and blood. The way they talked and interacted after-hours reminded me of my friends.

As I’m sure you’ve already distilled, I loved In the Woods. It’s an exciting story from a new author that I think people are really going to enjoy. The plot/conclusion is nothing mind-blowing but it captures your interest enough for you to enjoy French’s dry sense of humor and smart dialogue. I’m already looking forward to reading French’s next book, whatever that may be.

Highlights: The hint of the supernatural, French’s dialogue, the cultural references

Lowlights: The ending was a little ho-hum, with too many questions left unanswered.


Nathan said...

I agree completely. I read this book last summer and was blown away. I STILL can't decide if I like that the ending was left so open, or if it felt like a cop out. Either way, Ryan was such a psychologically messed up character that it was a really interesting story to follow.

Jim said...

Yeah the open ending on the '84 storyline was kind of a letdown, but really how could she have satisfactorily tied that up?

A kid has strange claw marks (which is clearly what they are even though no one in the book actually suggests that they might be) on his shirts and shoes FILLED with blood. Not soaked in blood. FILLED with blood. Thats messed up! I really think it's better to just leave it unanswered and not put a disappointing conclusion on a great story.

Anonymous said...

I have never been so annoyed at a fictional character. How messed up could he be that he'd throw away the best thing since Peter and Jamie died just b/c he didn't know how to deal with that night? And to only realize that he truly loved Cassie when she was completely out of reach. I wished for something more to suggest what happened to Peter and Jamie. There's not enough to really pin a theory.

Unknown said...

I listened to this book on audio and was enthralled right up until the end. I don't know if I missed something major further back or if it was left open what happened to Peter & Jamie. If anyone knows, please email me!