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

Product Description:

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.


  1. YAY!!! I have not read this post, because I'm going to read this book soon. It's been sitting here ready for quite some time, but I just haven't had the chance yet. Seeing your rating makes me want to get it in my hands sooner, rather than later. Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. I'm in the same boat as Joy. It's on my desk, but I have a couple of library books to finish first. Soon. Good to see your rating.

  3. Lucky Joy and SuziQ - they have this book at their fingertips. This was a most enthusiastic review, Les, and so beautifully written. I look forward to reading both French's books.

  4. Anonymous9:41 AM

    I'm really glad you liked this. I may pick it up after I finish SUITE FRANCAISE, which I will start after I finish Louise Penny's new Gamache book (it's great by the way). I've been toying with this for my mystery book group later this year. Think it would go well? Sometimes I worry that I am shoving too many graphic mysteries at them, but that is what is more popular now in some ways. I also have THE LIKENESS around here in my 1300+, so I can get to that one too. Great review. I'm already excited about this (and as Nan says, I've loved shopping from my own shelves!).

  5. I am eager to read this one and hopefully will get to it this year. It sounds like such a good book!

  6. Joy - Be sure to come back and read my review once you've read the book. My husband's reading it right now and says it's very well-written. I can't wait to hear what you think. I have a feeling you'll love it.

    SuziQ - Don't wait too long. It's a winner and you'll want to read the follow-up as soon as you finish. Looking forward to your review.

    Booklogged - I had a lot of fun writing the review. Took me several hours, but only because I wanted to do a good job -- and it's tough reviewing mysteries without giving away any spoilers. Hope you can get to both books before too long. I'd send you my copy, but I think it's going to be a keeper. My husband's already engrossed in it and I can't wait to talk to him about all the details.

    Kay - I can't wait for you to read this one! I think it's a great book club selection. There's lots to discuss. It's a little graphic, but nothing like Cody McFadyen's thrillers. Rod's reading it and hasn't quit, which is a good sign. I was worried it might be too upsetting for him...

    I can't decide if I want to buy or borrow The Likeness. Maybe I'll wait for it to come out in paperback. Maybe. Glad you enjoyed the review. It was a fun one to write up.

    Wendy - Don't wait too long! It's such a great book.

  7. I'm glad you liked In the Woods! Really, The Likeness is even better, which is hard to imagine, but so true. Hurry, lady! :-)

  8. Anonymous7:01 AM

    I have been sitting on a copy of The Likeness for awhile, afraid I will be dissapointed, although as you mentioned everyone seems to love it too! Glad you enjoyed In the Woods so much.

  9. Trish - Oh, this is so good to know. I can't wait to read it!

    Stephanie - After hearing all the positive reviews for The Likeness, I'd be surprised if it weren't as good as it sounds. I'd be more hesitant of the hype if it were her first book, but since it's the second, I'm trusting my blogger friends. I think it'll be a winner!

  10. Hi Leslie! I received the book today and finished my current book this evening so I can read your book right away!

    Also, I am putting In the Woods on my TBR list right this instant.

    Thanks for everything!

  11. Glad to hear you loved it! I'm definitely reading this this year, and hopefully soon. My copy is near the top of a pile right in my line of sight! Can't wait!

  12. Yay, so glad you enjoyed this one. I liked The Likeness a lot too. I've heard a lot of people liked it better. I think I'm pretty even on both books. She's working on the third one so yay! :)

  13. Laura - Glad the book arrived so quickly. I've already hand-sold a copy at work to one of our regulars. I can't wait to hear what others think of it.

    And, I'll look forward to your thoughts on In the Woods when you get around to read it, too.

    Nat - You're in for a great read. Have fun!

    Iliana - Good to know that The Likeness is just as good, if not better. And a third is in the works?! Yahoo! Do you know if it's following the same characters?

  14. I enjoyed The Likeness even more, too! This writer is a great find, and I hope she keeps writing!

  15. I'm probably going to be the last person to read this...but I AM going to read it. I just need to start it and not worry about having too many books on the go at once (I don't seem to be bothered by it any other time).

  16. Tara - From what I've heard, she's working on a 3rd book, so yeah, I think she'll keep writing.

    Danielle - I just got a notification from my library that my copy of The Likeness is ready for pickup. I'm going to start in on it as soon as I finish my current read!

  17. I really loved this book as well! It's one I'm giving as a gift, which obviously means it ranked high in my book :)

  18. Started it this morning. I really wish I didn't have to work tomorrow. I'd much rather stay home and read all day.

  19. Katie - I think this would make a great gift for any mystery lover. Have you read The Likeness? I'm picking it up today!

    SuziQ - It really pulls you in quickly, doesn't it! Can't wait to hear what you think when you finish. My husband just finished it this weekend and said it was very good.

  20. I'm so going to read this, now.

  21. Bellezza - You are in for such a treat! It is soooooooo good!

  22. Les - I can't wait to read The Likeness! Haven't picked it up yet though. I look forward to your review!

  23. This one has been on my shelf far too long and I am going to read it SOON! Especially after this great review :)

  24. Katie - Have you read In the Woods? I'll probably get to The Likeness this weekend. Gotta wait for the hubby to finish first. :)

    Wendy - Don't wait any longer. It's an awesome book!

  25. Katie - Ooops, I forgot you already said you read it. Sorry!

  26. Anonymous8:34 PM

    Dear Leslie;

    I have found a book I know you would love if haven't already participated in this feast. "Still Alice" by Lisa Genova. I am not even going to tell you the plot knowing you will pick it up quickly. The writing is beyong surpreme and the story catches you and never lets go until you finish it. JUST AMAZINg read. If you want to read it, I will send it to you.

    Gayla(you can connect me online if you like at onporchswings or my personal address gayla.c@bresnan.net


  27. I picked up Still Alice about a week ago. In this case, all the hype has spurred me on to pick it up. I'm putting my current read on hold. :) Have you heard much about it at work, Les?

  28. Gayla - I sent you an email. Hope you received it! Still Alice sounds like something I'd enjoy reading. Thanks for the offer!

    Joy - I haven't heard much about it, but it seems to be selling well. I'll be anxious to hear your thoughts!

  29. I just wanted you to know I read this based on your review and I loved it. I was a little disappointed by the dangling plot threads but still -- loved it. I'm now reading The Likeness.

  30. Katya - Glad to hear you enjoyed it as much as I did. Yeah, there are a few dangling threads, but they're easily forgotten once you move on to The Likeness. I'm about 200 pages in and am lovin' it!!

  31. Just reading it now, and liking it so much. It is very visual, and I can imagine how whole scenes would look. Surprising that Masterpiece hasn't picked it up, or the BBC, or Irish tv.

    1. I'm glad you're enjoying this, Nan. I wouldn't have guessed it was your type of mystery, but the writing is very good and, as I recall, the the violence isn't too gritty.


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