In the Woods by Tana French is a mystery thriller that centers on the homocide of a young girl and its investigation by detectives Rob Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox. Released in 2007, critics and reviewers have praised In the Woods, but readers have given it only a four star rating on Amazon and a three star rating on GoodReads. So, what gives?
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in the woods Summary
In the 1980s, in a suburb of Dublin, three children go missing in the woods neighboring a residential estate. Residents find one of the boys, Adam, bloody and traumatized. They never find his friends.
A little over 20 years later, Adam has changed his name to Rob and become a murder detective. He has spent the last 20 years forgetting what happened in the woods.
Until a team of archaelogists find a 12 year old girl murdered on an archaelogical site just outside them.
Defying rules and ethics, Rob and his partner Cassie get themselves assigned to the murder and Rob finds himself hoping to solve not just one mystery, but two.
Please note that I’ve included mild spoilers for this book in this review. Proceed with caution, especially from the section titled “Resolution” onward.
Tana French builds not just one convincing atmosphere but many. When the detectives are at headquarters, you feel as though you were there. As Rob reenters the woods, you feel his oppression and fear. In the home of the murdered girl’s family, you feel chaos and lies. Through both setting descriptions and dialogue, French builds an atmosphere that is tension-filled and grisly. With what seems like minimal effort, she even manages to bring in just enough Celtic mystery and mythology to make you question whether or not events are happening on the physical plane. It’s a wonderful backdrop for a mystery.
Characters and Relationships
Arguably the greatest success for In the Woods is the relationship between Rob and Cassie. Her potrayal of the partners takes the idea of the “buddy cop” story to a new level. I smiled and laughed and sighed and grimaced alongside this relationship that felt simultaneously completely realistic and too good to be true. Watching Rob and Cassie’s relationship evolve and change was delightful and painful. As invested as I was in the solving of the two mysteries, I was equally invested in the very real realtionship of Rob and Cassie.
I don’t know that the realtionship between the two could have worked as well without the characters themselves being well-realized. That’s true for the detectives but also for several supporting characters. Some characters get more page time than others but the picture French paints of the key players propels the story forward.
A great mystery should provide enough evidence for the reader to make an educated guess. And while I wasn’t able to work anything out, when the big reveal was made, I felt I could have. For most mystery novels, in my experience, that’s the mark of a good plot and appropriate details.
I skimmed entire lengths of the narration when Rob began his internal monologues. Not because I find internal monologues themselves boring or because they weren’t important—I imagine they were very important, actually—but because they didn’t feel authentic.
Detective Rob is our first person narrator for In the Woods. He’s a bit of an unreliable narrator—a fact he admits in the begining and reaffirms at the end. Maybe that’s why his monologues often veer to the poetic. However, in the course of a gruesome tale, his frequent and sudden forays into flowery existentialism felt off-putting and disconnected. I can make an argument for the disconnect—we’re meant to question which Rob is the real Rob. But in practice, I usually felt like the monologues were written by the author herself rather than being a continuation of Rob’s thoughts from his perspective.
In the Woods is a slow burn. That’s a departure from many mystery thriller novels, which tend toward the page turner. In some ways, we can view its length and build up as a positive. The atmosphere, the relationships and character building, and the careful laying out of the evidence take time to portray properly and convincingly, and French gave herself the time and space to do it well.
The problem for me came at the end.
Note: Mild spoilers ahead.
We only learn the truth behind one of the mysteries presented in In the Woods. While annoying to my sense of justice, I understand it. In reality, murderers aren’t always caught. Evil people sometimes walk free. It’s frustrating. There was a moment that I wanted to pitch the book across the room and yell at our detectives.
But at least we knew, I suppose.
The other mystery—that of what happened to Rob’s friends in the woods all those years ago—remains unsolved. Because I don’t think it was ever the point.
I’ve seen In the Woods described as Rob’s confession. I think we can also view it as a deep dive into the human psyche, an experiement in psychology to unearth buried memories or traumas.
Whatever it was intended to be, however, by the end I felt dissatisfied and frustrated.
in the woods: author’s purpose, genre, and reader expectations
I think there’s opportunity for an interesting discussion surrounding In the Woods regarding author’s purpose and reader’s expectations based on genre.
I began reading In the Woods with expectations similar to the beginning of any mystery thriller—primarily, that the story would reveal a resolution to any mysteries. In the case of this story, I expected the detectives to solve the murder of the little girl and for Rob to remember what happened to his friends, for better or worse. When at the end Rob is content to self-destruct and sink back into the comfort of his memory loss, I felt frustrated. I felt frustrated because I was left with dangling threads and too many options.
That led me to consider the author’s purpose. French wrote what was in many ways a classic mystery novel, yes. A murder occurred, evidence was unearthed, and the culprit was identified if not punished. So far, so good.
But her inclusion of Rob’s background and the entirely disconnected tragedy of his missing childhood friends seems superfluous if the purpose of this novel was to present a mystery story. Had the two been linked, even if one remained largely unsolved, it would have made more sense. But in the end, Rob’s connection to the cold case served as nothing more than a frustration.
So, what was French’s purpose?
As I said earlier, I think the real story here is far more about humanity and psychology than mystery.
We could believe that Rob killed his friends and has suppressed his memories of it to survive.
We could believe that Rob saw his friends killed and has suppressed his memories of it to survive.
Or we could believe that Rob and his friends encountered a mythical or spiritual being and that he has suppressed his memories or been forced to suppress his memories in order to survive.
The end is ambiguous. We’re left feeling a disconcerting mixture of pity and hatred toward our narrator. We don’t know how much to believe of either story.
The ending is so ambiguous that everything is called into question. And while that might fulfill the author’s purpose of exploring human psychology, it subverts the reader’s expectations for a mystery novel.