January 24, 2009
In the Woods
In the Woods by Tana French
2007 Penguin Books
Finished on 1/16/09
Rating: 4.75/5 (Excellent!)
Winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel
The debut novel of an astonishing new voice in psychological suspense.
In Tana French's powerful debut thriller, three children leave their small Dublin neighborhood to play in the surrounding woods. Hours later, their mothers' calls go unanswered. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children, gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
Twenty years later, Detective Rob Ryan—the found boy, who has kept his past a secret—and his partner Cassie Maddox investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl in the same woods. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him, and that of his own shadowy past.
In the Woods may only be the second book I've read this year, but I already know it's going to wind up on my Top Ten list for 2009! What an amazing debut by Tana French. Complex, flawed, yet highly likeable characters, combined with exceptionally rich details and language, draw the reader into this breathless psychological thriller. I found myself marking page after page, sorting through clues, eager to solve the mystery before Ryan & Maddox. And, now that I've finished the story, I find my thoughts drifting back to various scenes, missing the duo, who at times reminded me of Dennis Lehane's Kenzie & Gennaro. I do believe Cassie is my new literary girl crush. She's intelligent, determined and very tough; much like Smokey (Cody McFadyen's main character), Sunny (Robert Parker's heroine) and Clarice (The Silence of the Lambs). Definitely not a goofy klutz like Stephanie Plum!
French's main characters aren't the only aspect of this procedural mystery that bring to mind Dennis Lehane's mysteries. French's writing has a similar literary quality to that of Lehane's. Passages such as the following make this much more than your typical brain-candy mystery:
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland's subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur's palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping chants, One! two! three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend's knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.
On the joy of finding one's true calling in life:
Out of absolutely nowhere I felt a sudden sweet shot of joy, piercing and distilled as the jolt I imagine heroin users get when the fix hits the vein. It was my partner bracing herself on her hands as she slid fluidly off the desk, it was the neat practiced movement of flipping my notebook shut one-handed, it was my superintendent wriggling into his suit jacket and covertly checking his shoulders for dandruff, it was the garishly lit office with a stack of marker-labeled case files sagging in the corner and evening rubbing up against the window. It was the realization, all over again, that this was real and it was my life. Maybe Katy Devlin, if she had made it that far, would have felt this way about the blisters on her toes, the pungent smell of sweat and floor wax in the dance studio, the early-morning breakfast bells raced down echoing corridors. Maybe she, like me, would have loved the tiny details and the inconveniences even more dearly than the wonders, because they are the things that prove you belong.
I love the cadence of that passage!
Just as the narrative began to lag ever so slightly, a new discovery was revealed and the intensity rushed back. It was at this point that I knew the book was going to be a winner. I found every opportunity to pick up the novel, neglecting household obligations and chores. I was unable to stop myself from reading late into the night. I was eager to discuss specific details of the narrative with several of my coworkers, not waiting patiently for our book group to meet. I told my husband, repeatedly, what a great book I was reading. I made a mental note to set a Favorite Mysteries endcap in March, leading, of course, with In the Woods. I composed a fan letter in my head to Tana French. And, as I poured myself a bourbon after a long, exhausting day, my thoughts returned to Rob, Cassie and Sam, remembering their evening ritual of dinner and drinks while discussing the case.
Oh, this would make such a fabulous movie!
I do have one minor quibble which involves the initial conversation with the family when the detectives inform them of Katy's death. The parents and older sister all referred to Katy in the past tense, jarring me from my engrossed state of literary bliss. I don't think anyone would argue that most people who have lost a loved one spend days, if not weeks and months, referring to that person in the present tense. While French may not know this from personal experience, it is a detail that should have been caught by her editor. (Although for French to have made too much of that issue would have been a cliche, of course.)
I don't remember when I first heard about In the Woods, but more than likely it was either Stephanie or Iliana's reviews that caught my attention. It wound up a winner with my book group this month and we're all anxious to read French's follow-up thriller, The Likeness, in which several characters from In the Woods return. From what I've heard, this sophomore work is even better than French's debut. If that's the case, I may have discovered my first 5/5 read for 2009. In the Woods is a gripping story of loss and survival, friendship and secrets. While some of the details in the plot were left dangling, I was thoroughly entertained and completely engaged, and I look forward to many more books by Tana French.