Blogging has been a wonderful memory tool for me. Before I started keeping records of what I read and what I think about it, I used to wander about in the library, thinking, “Have I read that one, or…?” and I’d bring it home, and halfway through I’d realize that yes, indeed, I had read it. This book was the reverse error. I was fairly sure I’d started Tana French’s In the Woods several years back (pre-blogging), and that I hadn’t liked it and hadn’t finished it. But we were reading it for my mystery book club, so I thought I might as well give it another shot. I’m so glad I did! Not only am I innocent of ever having read this book before, it was a well-written, enjoyable debut mystery from an author I’d certainly like to try again.
When Rob Ryan was 12 years old, three children from his Irish village were lost in the woods. Two were never found. The third — Rob himself — was found gripping a tree in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to remember a single detail of the preceding hours. Fast-forward twenty years, and Rob is a homicide detective, partnered with Cassie Maddox, and still unable to dredge up memories of much of his childhood. But when another girl is found dead in his home village of Knocknaree, he may have a chance to solve this murder as well as his own past.
The best part of this book was the evocative way it was written. Rob, the narrator, weaves stories from the squad room, stories from his childhood, suspect interviews, and scenes from his close partnership and friendship with Cassie together seamlessly and with a light touch. The partnership is particularly well done: French really brings out the joy and tenderness of a really close friendship between young people, the sparking of ideas, the in-jokes, the banter, the trust. The police-procedural part of the book is interesting and realistic, but it’s wedged in around the relationships, which are really the spine of the novel.
I will say that I found the thing that was supposed to be a Big Surprise predictable from the beginning, and I think most experienced mystery readers will also find it so, but in the end, the big reveal is not the most important thing about the book. The slow crumble of the case is difficult to watch, because the buildup of it was so beautifully done, and the ending satisfies more for psychological reasons than for any surprise factor. French is better at understanding people and their motivations than she is at doing jigsaw puzzles, and that’s a compliment.
Several people in my book group complained about the ending, because (as I mentioned in my brief summary) there are two mysteries in this novel, and one of them is resolved, and the other is not. They felt they were left hanging. I disagreed: I never expected one of the mysteries to be resolved, and would have been faintly annoyed to have it tied up in a neat bow. I prefer ambiguous endings, and this one came well up to scratch.
There were a few things that bothered me in this novel — there’s one plot point that I thought was awkwardly handled and unrealistic — but I think they are the quirks of a debut novel. Overall, I thought it was gripping, well-written, witty, and completely enjoyable. I look forward to reading the next in the series.