Every once in awhile you come across a book of such genius that, once you finish the final page and close the volume, leaves you thinking, “Now just how the hell did they come up with that?” In the Woods was that way for me, although I did not recognize that the book was brilliant from the beginning; it snuck up on me.
It was given to me as a wedding gift (in 2010, when it was already three years old) and had always intrigued me, yet sat untouched on my bookshelf for five years. Every time I picked it up, ready for a new book and perusing my shelves for the next thing to read, I would always internally cite that it was “not the right time of life” for that particular book.
As a side note, I have an odd, almost autistic-level obsessive compulsion about choosing what book to read next, insistent that I need to find just the right book that will hit me just the right way and match my mood for that particular period in life. Being between books—existing in that tiny window of savory time, having finished the previous thing and getting to choose the next thing—is too sweet and exciting to approach lightly, at least for me. That, and the fact that I own more than 300 volumes between two eight foot high shelves and have only read perhaps one third of them creates a certain self-inflicted pressure to make some progress through my miniature library (which only grows as life goes on). Too many books, too little time.
I say that the genius of this book snuck up on me because from the beginning I did not necessarily find it riveting or demanding in the hook of its initial premise, and yet it had a soft, quiet, un-put-down-able quality that kept me coming back to take in large portions at a time.
It begins as a “normal” enough murder mystery—horrific though the murder is—with a twelve year old girl found dead on an ancient sacrificial stone in the middle of an archaeological dig in Knocknaree, Ireland. What is revealed very early on is that this story encircles not one mystery but two, the second having happened thirty-some years earlier and directly involving one of the lead investigators on the dead girl's case, Detective Robert Ryan. The story is told from Rob's perspective, and like any good character he is complex, likable yet broken, and at times, unreliable as a narrator. From the very start, he confesses his own unreliability to the reader with the simple line: “I lie.”
The strength of this novel lies in the depth of its characters, and particularly in the relationship between the two protagonists, Det. Ryan and his partner Det. Cassie Maddox. Their partnership and friendship is a unique one, and some of the book's best moments are passages of their dialogue together. While the story is dark and heavy in an overall sense, it is not lacking for humor, diversity, and welcome breaks from the main plot. There are a number of offshoots and explored leads in the investigation that help spice up the narrative and keep the reader guessing—along with the detectives—which paths will be fruitful and which are dead ends. And while this has been clunkily grouped into the “Mystery” genre (which, admittedly, it is), it is also much more than your simple beach-read thriller, and literary to the core in all the best ways. The aspect of Det. Ryan's background and the demons that haunt him into adulthood is a piece of the novel that is expertly explored, as is the thread of his relationship with Cassie and how it evolves throughout the story. No wonder the book won a number of awards.
Tana French has an incredible sensibility for how humans think, act, and speak. Her dialogue is spot on (nothing is better than reading a book where characters talk the way real people talk), her characters diverse and vibrant, and her ability to craft a complex story impeccable. There were several moments that had me gasping (or moaning) out loud, as I was so invested in these characters and ached at the trials they had to endure. Cassie Maddox quickly became one of my favorite characters I have ever encountered in literature, and I don't use that superlative lightly. Thank goodness she appears in at least one more of French's subsequent novels. It is rare for me to finish a book and be left wanting to spend more time with the characters, but that was absolutely the case here.
I read a lot of books, though not many mysteries, and this one simply blew me away. For all intents and purposes, it is in my mind a “perfect” story; the sort of thing you walk away from thrilled about and perturbed at the same time that you didn't think of it first. This is the sort of writing to which I aspire.
If it isn't already clear: I cannot recommend this book highly enough.