In the Woods by Tana French was one I read for my book club. At 400+ pages it’s not a quick read, but it’s a compelling mystery that doesn’t leave you struggling to keep interest despite the amount of pages. French’s lovely prose was unusual for this genre but I thought it worked. I actually didn’t even make it to that book club meeting, but I still read it.
Some minor spoilers follow.
Rob Ryan, a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad, and his partner and best friend Cassie Maddox are assigned to the investigation of a twelve-year-old girl’s murder. Katy’s body, found near the woods on an archaeological dig site, seems to have appeared with no clues as to who her killer was.
Ryan assures Cassie he can handle working on this case - for the time being, she’s the only one aware there might be a conflict of interest. Over twenty years before, when he was a kid, Ryan had been playing in those same woods with two friends. He was found hours later in a panic, clawing a tree with blood on his shoes, but he was alone. His friends had disappeared, were never found, and he couldn’t remember a thing. To avoid attention from this case as an adult, he uses his middle name (Adam being his first name) and his superiors don’t realize until later he's working a case with possible connections to his own.
Cassie and Ryan struggle to find a lead. They question Katy’s family, the workers of the dig, they both have their suspicions and assurances of innocence even while feeling local political pressure to get this case solved. Through it all, Ryan secretly hopes - and dreads - that Katy’s case is related to his own and that he will find answers. He struggles to remember events he has blocked out for twenty years, but for every clue they gain, they hit a dead end and get more and more frustrated.
Finally, when visiting the archaeological dig where Katy was found, Ryan comes to a sudden moment of realization and the mystery begins to unravel. Ryan and Cassie’s relationship has become strained by this point, but they work together to solve the murder before drifting apart.
The best part of this novel was Cassie and Ryan’s relationship. I was considerably less interested after they had a best-friend-breakup-fight. Ryan was THE biggest baby in that whole thing and I was so frustrated with how he handled both his work and personal relationships with her. He overreacted to one incident big time and all I wanted was for him to grow up, be an adult about it, and realize he didn’t need to push Cassie away.
At the end of the novel, Ryan told the reader “She fooled you too,” speaking of [insert character who will remain nameless so I don’t spoil too much]. I was already irritated with him over Cassie at that point, so when I read that I rolled my eyes. I hadn’t trusted this character from the start and I knew something was up with her, though I didn't predict exactly what it was. She was dramatic, flirty, and obvious in her need for attention. Maybe I’m supposed to assume that Ryan fell for her act because he’s a man, but I really hope male detectives out there in the world aren’t that easily fooled.
All this doesn’t mean I didn’t find Ryan a compelling or believable character, though. His constant effort to remember what happened twenty years ago really wreaked havoc on his psyche. In this novel at least, it’s clear that having a conflict of interest can be damaging. I appreciated his determination in uncovering the truth for Katy; I can only imagine how emotionally draining it is to work on cases like this in real life.
The novel’s pace was solid, except for about 50 pages near the end. It started dragging and even though I intended to see the story through I got a little bored, right before the part where the mystery (well, part of it) was solved. That Ah-ha! moment seemed to come about way too easily, when I read the ending I was confused about how they didn’t at least investigate this particular location more thoroughly at the beginning. Not to mention I was disappointed with the lack of answers for Ryan’s past when we spent so much time reliving it.
My single favorite moment of the book was when Katy’s dancing instructor quietly mourned for her and wondered if she could have saved the girl. She was so happy to have Katy as a student and then she lost her in such a terrible way. Ugh. My heart.
In the Woods was a 3.5 for me; French’s story was intriguing and I’ll probably give her work another go at some point. I’m still curious about what happened to young Rob Ryan (although I’m not sure he’s a character in her next novels, I believe they all stand alone) and I read this several months ago. If you like detective fiction I recommend this one!