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5th April
2009
written by Steph
Not to be confused with the Sondheim musical "Into the Woods"...

Not to be confused with the Sondheim musical "Into the Woods"...

Tony picked this one out for me when we visited Chicago back in May, 2008.  At that time, we had not yet discovered the wonders of McKay’s here in good old Nashville, so I was thrilled to be in a used bookstore that had a great selection of used books, and ones in good condition no less (one of my peeves regarding one of Nashville’s more popular used bookstores is that they price all copies of a given book the same, regardless of the condition said books are in… suffice it to say the price is often much higher than what I think is fair play on used books, but then again, perhaps I’m spoiled as I remember being able to buy used books for like, 25 cents and a dollar when I was a kid).  Anyway, I had heard about In The Woods when Tony handed it to me, and even though it was a hardcover copy, the price was quite reasonable (I think it was $12), so I decided to go ahead and give it a shot.  After all, it sounded like exactly the kind of book I would like. The basic premise is that Detective Rob Ryan spent the first 12 years of his life growing up in Knocknaree, Ireland (a small, idyllic town on the outskirts of Dublin) when tragedy struck.  On a quiet summer day in 1984, he and his two best friends enter the woods that skirt the town, only for two of the trio to never be seen ever again.  When Rob (then known as Adam) is found in the woods later that night, he is covered in blood (it is even inside of his shoes) and the back of his shirt has been slashed several times, and he has no memory of what has happened to either himself or his friends.  Flash forward to present day. Rob is now an adult and working on Ireland’s Murder Squad, when he and his partner Cassie Maddox are called to investigate the murder of a young girl found on an archeological dig site in Knocknaree.  As they investigate the case, Rob is forced to face his past, as signs begin to emerge that the present day murder may be linked to the disappearance of his two friends all those years ago. Now we all know that I’m a huge fan of mystery novels, especially those that take place in the UK (and let’s not split hairs over whether Ireland is part of the UK/Great Britain or not).  I don’t know why the setting is so important to me when it comes to mystery novels, but it just is.  I could probably do remote seaside towns on the East Coast of the U.S., but set them in downtown Manhattan and I immediately lose interest.  It’s weird, I know.  That being said, In The Woods, was a pretty drastic departure from my regular mystery fare, setting aside.  The best way I’ve come at describing it is to say that it’s like CSI: Dublin – it’s a mystery, yes, but it’s very much a procedural oriented one, in that you have labs doing forensics works and DNA testing, rather than just having a little detective running around and using the power of his or her mind to make sense of everything.  This book is much grittier and darker than the relatively bloodless murders of Agatha Christie, and psychologically it wades into deeper and choppier waters.  I tend not to enjoy procedural shows (I don’t watch any of the CSIs, ditto for the various Law & Order incarnations), so I think it’s a testament to the novel itself as well as Tana French that I enjoyed this novel a good deal (for reference, the book is just over 400 densely-written pages, and I devoured the first 200 or so in one sitting). At its core, In The Woods is a mystery novel, but I think there are two things that set it apart from most other mystery/thriller novels.  First, the writing is very good and quite literary, not at all disposable as can sometimes be the case with genre novels (I will say that the first few pages that comprise the preface/prologue, had writing that I found a bit hard to grasp, but push past those and the writing in just the first chapter is much easier to handle).  French’s writing is extremely evocative and effective at ratcheting up the suspense.  The novel isn’t really spooky and scary, and yet, French is really good at making you think that it could be.  On the flipside, at times the writing is genuinely witty and funny; it’s nice to see a writer who can strike both notes equally well.  Obviously you don’t down 200 pages in one go if the writing is mediocre and the pacing is poor.  But the second thing that elevates In The Woods is that while it is ostensibly a mystery novel, it’s a lot deeper than that, as French spends a lot of time exploring the Rob Ryan character, looking at how the trauma in his youth has irrevocably affected him both in terms of how he views himself as well as how he interacts with others.  Particularly well-drawn is his relationship with Cassie (and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that that dynamic becomes a huge plotline in and of itself). In The Woods is a remarkably strong debut novel, but it’s not perfect.  The pacing partway through (around the 250 page mark) gets quite sluggish for a time, as Rob & Cassie hit the point in their case where every avenue they pursue winds up being a dead end.  This may be a realistic thing to occur in bonafide investigations, but when the whole investigation only takes on month and the book is 400 pages, a week’s worth of nada winds up being 100 pages of zip & zilch.  It’s frustrating and kind of boring, and wound up making me feel as though - like so many books today - In The Woods could have benefited with a more cut-throat editor.  Because those 100 pages really screw up the pacing, bringing the action to a halt and then making it feel like the last bit of the novel and all of the breakthroughs and the reveals are kind of rushed.  The other thing that makes the novel a bit hard to swallow is that partway through the boring section, Rob does something that makes him truly loathsome.  As in, I hated him with the fire of a thousand fiery burning suns.  And he kind of never recovers from his slide into assholeishness.  I mean, you still want to know how it’s all going to turn out, but you stop rooting for Rob because he’s such an impregnable jerk, and that’s a shame because part of why you’re connecting so much to the story up to that point is because of his plight.  I know French had her reasons for doing what she did, but I wish she could have achieved the same ends without turning Rob into such a clichéd stereotype. But overall, I liked the book very much.  It mostly held my interest, and I thought the resolutions that are provided to the reader were essentially satisfying (though I won’t lie, the motivation for the present-day murder case is kind of a stretch and not necessarily entirely believable, but whatever, it was fine).  Some readers were peeved with how certain plot points and questions aren’t neatly tied up, but given that French is writing a series, there’s the possibility these might be addressed in future novels, so the fact that some things go unanswered didn’t feel like cheating or like the rest of the novel had been pointless, because again, In The Woods is enjoyable for more than just the central mystery.  I do think it’s wise that French’s next book, The Likeness, focuses on Cassie rather than Rob, since at the end of this book, I didn’t feel there was anywhere else for him to go, and he didn’t have much currency left with this reader.  I do think the Cassie narrator will prove to be somewhat problematic, as French largely uses that character to unrealistically tap into the minds of suspects and killers based on the improbable background of having studied psychology for 3 years.  I’ve been studying it for 8, and I doubt I could be called upon to do any kind of reliable profiling…  But apart from that, I will say that even though I rarely feel compelled to do this, as soon as I finished In The Woods, I wished I had The Likeness so that I could start reading that right away (I’ve already requested it through my library).  By all accounts, The Likeness is supposed to be even better, so I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on it.  It does refer back to events from this novel though, so anyone interested in that should probably consider this a necessary but enjoyable precursor. Rating: 4 out of 5

14 Comments

  1. 04/05/2009

    I am a big fan of CSI – Las Vegas, specifically – so I’m curious about this book, since you say it’s like CSI: Dublin. I’ll keep in mind.

  2. 04/05/2009

    I like gritty mysteries, but so few of them are well written that I rarely bother with them. I’ve been wondering about this book, and you make it sound like something I’d really enjoy. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  3. 04/05/2009

    @ Charley: If procedurals are your thing, I think you’d enjoy this for sure. The focus is still on the detective work, but the forensics team is definitely brought in more than I’m accustomed to in the mysteries I read.
     
    @ Teresa: I definitely felt the writing here was a step above your average mystery novel. In general I felt there was a lot more meat to In The Woods than the average mystery novel, which is a point in its favor. There are elements that are bit cliché or obvious, but overall I thought it was enjoyable and worth my time.

  4. 04/05/2009

    I enjoyed this book so much, and had the same thoughts as you. It did drag a bit in spots, but her writing was so crisp. I cannot wait to read The Likeness.

    On another note, we watched Nick & Nora’s Infinite Playlist. I didn’t absolutely hate it until it was over and I realized I’d lost 90 minutes I could never get back again. I’m still pissed about the drunk friend–that was flat out unfunny and disturbing. And the rest was just dull.

  5. 04/06/2009

    @ Priscilla: Glad you enjoyed this one too! I really am so excited to read the next one – all the reviews seem to be even better for it, so I have high hopes. Booo to Nick & Nora! Just thinking about that movie and my time lost makes me so mad! Hated the drunk friend… hated it all!

  6. 04/06/2009

    I read this one last year and really enjoyed it even though I don’t normally read this genre of books. I still haven’t read The Likeness though – must get to it one day…

  7. 04/06/2009

    This book doesn’t sound like the typical mystery/thriller that the bookstore seems to be saturated with these days. I think the premise sounds interesting, and I am always looking for books with exceptional writing. I loved your review of this one, and will be keeping my eye out for a copy.

  8. 04/06/2009

    @ Karen: I think there’s enough other stuff going on in this book that even if mysteries/thrillers aren’t normally your thing, there’s plenty to enjoy in this one. I can’t wait to read The Likeness… the library can’t get it to me fast enough!
     
    @ zibilee: If you do get around to reading this one, I’d love to know your thoughts on it. It’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill pulp crime novel; the writing was certainly very literary.

  9. 04/06/2009

    Oooh that’s funny; I had never heard of the book before, but I almost got it this weekend. Than, I came here and saw your review!

    It looks like a great read and something I’d enjoy, since I’m a C.S.I fan. I didn’t know this was the first of a series, so it’s good I looked at your review first, otherwise I might as well have begun with another one!

  10. 04/06/2009

    @ kittykay: If you can find a copy of this book the next time you’re out on a book buying binge (hey, I’m not judging! 😉 ), you should definitely pick it up. At times it’s frustrating, but it’s a riveting read. I think you’ll really enjoy it.

  11. 04/07/2009

    I’ve had this one sitting on my shelf for months. I think I would have gotten around to it sooner if some of things I’ve read about it hadn’t been so mixed. But you’re review is heartening. Perhaps I’ll pick it up sometime in the very near future. Great review!

  12. 04/07/2009

    @ J.S. Peyton: I think the mixed reviews largely come from people who like books where everything gets neatly tied up at the end. This is not that kind of book. In fact, some pretty big plot points never get resolved, which I was ok with (perhaps because I, like you, had heard mixed things and they had lowered my expectations). I think if you go in knowing that certain things will not be answered (which I realize is weird for a mystery novel) then you might be in a better position to ultimately enjoy this one.

  13. 04/09/2009

    I enjoyed this and like yourself didn’t have a problem with Rob’s backstory not being tidied up. I did want him to wake up to himself midway through the book though!

    I think The Likeness was stronger as Cassie is a much more likable protagonist but its set up stretches belief and its plot reminded me of The Secret History. French’s appeal for me is her writing and characters, strong enough that I can overlook being able to predict the plot.

  14. 04/09/2009

    Maybe some of the more negative reviews came out when the book was first released and it wasn’t clear that French would be writing a series? I could potentially see being more peeved at the unfinished business stuff if I thought that was I all I was going to get… but then again, I really don’t think it would bug me too much, really. I had a sense from the beginning that there was some misdirection going on early on in the novel, and I felt like even if Rob’s case doesn’t get closed, exactly, he does get some semblance of closure, and that was good enough for me.
     
    Your comparison between The Likeness and The Secret History intrigues me, as I have the latter sitting in my TBR pile. I’ll probably wait until I’ve read The Likeness to get to it, but your comment suggests that I should perhaps not do a back-to-back reading of the two! I’m notoriously bad at prognosticating plots, which is probably why I enjoy mystery novels so much – they likely don’t have to be all that thoughtful and I’ll still fall for all the traps! 😉

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