“What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with the truth is fundamental but cracked…”
Tana French has obviously learned a few lessons from more established writers like Val McDermid and Denise Mina, and her first novel is a richly textured and complex character study as well as a precise explication of a particular crime. There are two main plot threads. One of them involves the disappearance of three 12 year olds twenty years in the past. Two of them were never found; the third is discovered with blood in his shoes clinging to the side of a tree. French infuses the memories of the boy—who is now a police detective—with fairy tale lore and language, giving the past an almost dreamy, otherwordly quality. In an early version of Cinderella, for example, the stepsister cuts off bits of her feet to fit into Cinderella’s slipper, so the slippers are filled with blood. Even the title, In the Woods, references the location of most fairy tales. French comes back again and again to the theme that children think differently—on the slim chance of seeing some kind of “marvel”, they’ll take a bigger risk, unheeded, because of their very youth. This gives her narrative a good deal of power and resonance.
The other thread involves the discovery of the body of a 12 year old girl in the very woods where our main character, Detective Ryan (who now uses a different first name) disappeared 20 years ago. It’s unclear from the beginning whether the two cases are linked or not. He of course should take himself off the case, and he of course does not. The main chunk of the book involves the working partnership of Ryan and Cassie, and their third wheel, Sam. As they follow up every possible lead in the case and are continually frustrated by it, it becomes apparent that not only are the two partners keeping things from each other and having various communication issues, but so are many of the suspects. The only one with more or less pure intentions seems to be Sam, and he’s relegated to the sidelines. This is the Ryan and Cassie Maddox show all the way.
There are a great deal of very effective and complicated psychological undertones to the entire story, and as Ryan himself points out in hindsight, all the clues are there. You, too, could solve this case. I thought French’s prose was absolutely gorgeous, and I also thought there was too much of it. If she had trimmed 100 or 150 pages from the book, it really would have been rocket powered while still delivering the emotional punch she was going for. Looking at a tight suspense novel like Ruth Rendell’s Master of the Moor or Peter Robinson’s equally creepy and concise Caedmon’s Song gives you an idea of where French might have gone with this. It may be a first novelist’s dilemma, but it may also maybe a sign of the present state of writing, where many books, in my opinion, are simply too long. She also makes a bit of a misstep with her final resolution of one of the threads—it’s pretty unsatisfying. But there is so much talent and thought packed into this book, that at the same time it’s a real shame not to read it, with all my caveats. The mere fact that she is able to so nimbly utilize this kind of fairly tale theme to such great effect, as well as creating indelible characters, makes this author one to watch.