In the Woods – Tana French (@tanafrench)

I found Tana French through another book reviewer I follow on Goodreads. While we don’t always have the same opinion on books, she’s always got an intriguing perspective. When she’s passionate about an author, it peaks my interest. I’m really glad I gave this recommendation a shot. French may be one of my new favourite crime writers. I read this book on a camping trip, and I’m glad I did because it is long. Like 600 pages long. If I’d been reading this during a regular work schedule, it would have taken much too long and caused many a sleepless nights.
This is definitely one of those books that will piss off a lot of people – it doesn’t answer all of the questions it starts with. It leaves some pretty giant holes at the end, but that’s just the way I like it. It was handled so well. We really should know from the very beginning that this isn’t going to be a neat and tidy story. We’re told right off the bat that Ryan is a liar by necessity. It’s part of his job. Detectives lie to suspects all the time. It’s how they get to the truth. But it’s more than that. He lies because it’s the only way he’s learned to survive. As the only survivor of a tragedy in his youth, lying became a survival technique. It’s now shaped every relationship in his life. Even with his parents, who know what happened to him and initiated his new identity, are part of his lies. He hates mac and cheese, but pretends it’s his favourite because it makes his mother feel better. It’s a little lie, but it’s supposed to be his one honest relationship.
His lies lead to one of the most interesting parts of the novel – the two simultaneous mysteries: the current death of Katy; and the twenty year old disappearance of Detective Ryan’s two best friends. If he hadn’t lied and changed his identity, he would never have been allowed to be the detective on this case. He is the only known witness to one of the area’s most prominent cold cases. His partner, Cassie, knows this, but when they take the case, they don’t realize what it will lead to. And even once they figure it out, they decide it’s worth the risk to find some answers.
From the beginning, there seems to be a clear connection between the two cases. What are the chances that two incidents involving pre-teens will happen in the same tiny community and not be connected? The story is positively lousy with questions: What the hell is up with Adam (now Rob) Ryan and his bloody shoes? What did Jamie and Peter hear in the woods? Where did they go? Why have they never found their bodies – especially if they’ve dug up most of the woods? Why was Katy killed? Why was she left on the alter stone? Was the old blood they found on the stone from the original case? And what the hell is wrong with everyone in Katy’s family?
Seriously, this family. There is nothing overtly ‘wrong’ with them. They seem like a pretty typical, mildly unhappy, family. They don’t have tons of money. The surviving twin seems to have some type of developmental delay. The wife is quiet. The husband throws all his passion into a project external to the family. The older daughter is desperate to grow up. Now, I knew something was weird with Rosalind right off the bat, but I thought it was maybe just that she was one of those girls that just tries too hard be a grown up. But then she called Detective Ryan and wouldn’t speak to Cassie. That’s when I knew there was something up with her, but I still thought she might just be trying to get the attention of a cute man. There was something up with her, but it could easily have been that she was nothing more than a pretentious twat.
There were lots of suspects. A couple obvious red herrings – Andrews and Mark. Their motives just didn’t seem legitimate. It could have worked out to be either of them with right content twists, but it just didn’t feel right. It felt closer to home than that. I was somewhere in the 400 pages when I turned to my camping buddy and said ‘I have no idea who did it!’ That’s the sign of a good mystery. I had my suspicions but I kept getting side tracked trying to figure out how the two stories connected.
Turns out, I was following exactly the red herring I was supposed to. The two crimes aren’t connected at all! But French creates just enough overlap to make us think there will be. Ryan remembers Devlin (the father of the dead girl) from their childhood. He was a few years older, one of the neighborhood hooligans. He and his friends were always getting into trouble. Eventually, Ryan remembers seeing Devlin participating in the rape of one of the local girls. As Ryan starts to remember his childhood, the reader can easily start to see the overlaps and start to find motives that would have lead from that event to this event. But nope. These are just distractions from the real villain – Rosalind. She’s not just a bitch. She’s a psychopath. Rosalind’s the oldest; she should get the most attention. At least that’s what she thinks. But then Katy starts to excel at dancing and suddenly she’s her father’s favourite. If Katy goes away for good, Rosalind’ll be back on the radar. She’s a manipulative bitch and she knows exactly the right moves to get men and children to do what she wants. She manipulates Katy into going to the dig site at night and she manipulated Damien into killing Katy. She gets Ryan to believe that she’s of age when she’s really only seventeen. She gets her sister to lie for her. And she’s got her mother totally hoodwinked.
One of the cleverest things French does in this novel is to introduce us to the killer in a very real way – he finds the body. And then she makes us dismiss him entirely. He becomes such a background character you kind of forget he exists. Even knowing he’s the murderer, I still had to go back and make sure I had his name right. He is the epitome of a patsy. Rosalind is the big bad in this novel. She twists everything. She’s the type of girl who makes people suspicious of accusations of abuse. She gives girls a bad name.
This is more than an action packed thriller. This novel is sad. I’ve come to realize that I’m drawn to stories with a touch of sadness. I’m not talking dying of cancer, women’s fiction type sad. I’m talking day to day events that break us in small, non-specific increments. Ryan and Cassie’s friendship is fundamental to the story. They make each other stronger. This is the type of friendship people long for. It’s easy and fluid and organic. They know the other’s secrets. They’re just sassy enough with one another to keep things fresh. The problem is that people assume there’s more to their relationship than just friendship. They assume they’re sleeping together. So, it will eventually go one of two ways. They’ll get together and become a happy, perfect couple, or they’ll sleep together and everything will fall apart. I’m so glad French went with the harder option. Their friendship falls apart. Is there anything worse than losing the person you rely on? Whether a romantic or platonic relationship, when it erodes because of misunderstanding and over reactions, it is heartbreaking. A moment of weakness and sadness destroys them. But it’s the catalyst that brings an end to the story. And it allows French an easy way to get Ryan off the murder squad. I don’t know if this was her intent from the beginning, but I loved Cassie and I’m glad the next book is from her perspective. I like her enough that I requested the second book before I’d even finished this one.
If I can make one complaint about this book, it’s not that the original mystery is never solved. That’s a complaint from a lot of people, but I actually like that we don’t get a resolution. He actually doesn’t remember what happened to his friends and he can’t let himself remember. It feels right that this is how it ends for him. My complaint is the length. It’s needlessly long. There aren’t any specific scenes that stick out as easily removable, but there were a lot of things happening. Scenes could have been tightened up, and we probably didn’t need to know that much about their dinners or Ryan’s roommate. A hundred pages shorter and it would have felt perfect. But all in all, it’s an excellent read. One of the best new crime fiction writers I’Ve encountered in a long time. I’ve already recommended it to several people.

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