Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why "In the Woods" is a superior mystery

In the Woods is Tana French's first novel. It is extraordinary; one 2014 source listed it as one of the 50 best debut novels since 1950. A friend tells me that her second book, The Likeness, is even better.

It is a mystery, narrated entirely by Rob Ryan, a Dublin detective. Rob has a history: When
he was 12-year-old and known as Adam Ryan, he and two friends went to play in the woods beside their suburban development. Hours later, he was found unhurt but standing in a pair of blood-soaked sneakers, so deeply traumatized he could not recall what happened. He never does and the bodies of his playmates are never found.

Now, twenty years later, he and his partner Cassie Maddox become the lead detectives in the murder of 12-year-old Katy Devlin, battered to death in the same woods. By regulations—and common sense—Rob should recuse himself from leading the investigation, but he doesn't. Which adds a layer of tension and complexity to the mystery.

The book was published in 2007, and I have not looked any any reviews, but I can imagine two complaints: French spends too much time on description, and Rob Ryan is not a sympathetic character. As a writer myself, I wish I could create a paragraph of description as vivid and engaging as this:

"Cassie seeps as lightly and easily as a kitten; after a few seconds I hear her breathing slow and deepen, the tiny catch at the top of each breath that told me she had drifted off. I am the opposite: once I'm asleep it takes an extra-loud alarm clock or a kick in the shins to wake me, but it can be hours of tossing and fidgeting before I get there. But somehow I always found it easier to sleep at Cassie's, in spit of the lumpy, two-short sofa and the grouchy creaks and ticks of an old house settling for the night. even now, when I'm having trouble falling asleep, I try to imagine myself back on the sofa: the soft, worn flannel of the duvet cover against my cheek, a spicy tang of hot whiskey still warming the air, the tiny rustles of Cassie dreaming across the room."

Rob, on the other hand, is more problematic. French, a woman, is writing from a man's point of view, but I had no questions about that. Nor could I fault the police work which, from the little I know watching BBC crime shows, reads perfectly accurate. Rob, perhaps because of his traumatic background, drinks too much, smokes too much, and clearly makes a couple of bad decisions. Still, the killing, apparently motiveless, is complex and ultimately the solution is both plausible and satisfying.

If you haven't read Tana French, and if you are interested in writing that lifts a mystery story out of the genre ghetto, look up In the Woods. I will be checking out The Likeness.

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