Page Turners

In the Woods and the Universality of Crime



Looking back on the various novels that I’ve discussed here on Page Turners, I noticed a pretty huge consistent factor. I read books from an awful lot of white dudes. So, I’m going to try and broaden my horizons this year, and try to read more novels from people with different experiences than myself. So, to kind of give myself a useful bridge, I decided to finally check out a novel that I’ve had for quite some time, primarily because of the glowing reviews and reactions I heard from it. It’s the first installment in a sprawling series of crime novels from Irish author Tana French, who has built a series with ever-changing protagonists who work for a somewhat fictionalized group of detectives who investigate murder in Dublin. As someone who is obviously interested in crime fiction, and specifically stories about detectives, it seemed like a no-brainer that I would be interested in this novel. And, adding in the setting of Ireland and the kind of psychological-thriller bent that the novel is famous for, I figured that this was going to be a novel that clicked for me. And boy did it. I mean, it’s not often that a novel can get under my skin enough to cause me to lose sleep, but this book did that. It’s a real experience.

In the Woods primarily follows a detective named Rob Ryan, a fairly seasoned detective in the murder squad, and his partner and best friend Cassie Maddox. However, Rob has a secret. When he was a child, living in a small community called Knocknaree, his two best friends mysteriously vanished and he was found alone in the woods, covered in someone else’s blood. The case was never solved, and after changing his name and moving away, Rob worked to leave his past behind, and dedicated his life to helping save other people when put in these positions. Unfortunately, that becomes hard when he and Cassie are given a new assignment involving a girl who has been found killed in an archaeological dig-site in Knocknaree. Rob decides to keep his past secret from his superiors, and he and Cassie begin investigating the death of Katy Devlin, a local celebrity of sorts who was preparing to be send to a prestigious ballet school because of her talents. And, immediately, the case becomes complicated. There just seems to be no real suspects or motives, and everyone they encounter becomes just another dead-end.

And, to make matters worse, the more time that Rob spends in Knocknaree the more he starts to lose it. He becomes convinced that somehow this case is related to the one that claimed his two best friends, but decades of repression has left him with virtually no memories of his time in this town. And things are made even weirder when he realizes that Katy Devlin’s father, Jonathan, was a teenager in the town when Rob was a kid, and Rob and the other kids witnessed Jonathan and his friends rape a woman. He becomes convinced that Jonathan was behind Katy’s death, and possibly his own friends, and that’s kind of pushed on when Katy’s older sister Rosalind starts to imply that Jonathan is a domestic abuser. Rob becomes fixated on the case, the lack of leads, and his own troubled past. Which makes it even worse when in a moment of turmoil he and Cassie sleep together, something that they’ve long fought, which then even takes away the only functioning friendship that he had. The way that the mystery pans out, and the destruction that it has on Rob’s life, are utterly fascinating, and even though I have a strong tendency to spoil everything I talk about here, I feel like this story deserves to be read and seen unfold.

Because this is a hell of a story. It’s a very well-designed mystery, giving us a thrilling and mysterious detective story that’s full of twists and turns, and I loved it. But, the thing that really drew me into the story had to be Tana French’s prose. Detective stories aren’t always known for having the most flowery and impressive writing, often feeling a tad utilitarian. But French has a beautiful way with words, spinning a wonderful novel that brings wonderful life to her creations. The characters all feel fully realized, their relationships are wonderful, and the dread that emanates from this story is tremendous. She throws us into a fascinating world, letting us understand the culture and life of rural Ireland while reminding us that no matter where you live, no matter what culture you’re in, crime and murder will always be the same. It’s always going to be there, and there’s always going to be people who are put in the horrible position of having to look at the darkest humanity has to offer, and try to find some sort of justice. And French manages to take the nihilistic reality of murder and make it incredibly relateable and personal, and it’s a wonderful feat.


In the Woods was written by Tana French, 2007.

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