Three sleepless nights and I finally turned the last page of Tana French’s In the Woods. It was my first, and will not be my last French, because it surprised me. When you’ve been reading as long as I have, well, not much does. Which can be comforting (romance serves this purpose well), or boring as heck. I was in thrall to French’s writing (rare in mystery, rarer in romance), which was horrific, funny, and penetrating all at once, at her broken, flawed, knowable and unknowable detectives, and her daring in solving one crime and leaving another hanging. (Note: I took the accompanying picture of the morning sky on Dec. 16, 2021.)
When I started In the Woods, I didn’t think I’d like it and I didn’t think I’d finish it. Her first-person narrator, Detective Rob Ryan (aka “Adam”) turned me right off with his impenetrable narration. I can’t stand the paradoxical voice saying to me, “What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this — two things: I crave truth. And I lie.” I’m no fan of the declarative sentence and a first-person narrative is rife with them. Add a paradoxical “warning” to the reader and I will always take it as bad faith. But after sticking with it out of sheer stubbornness and curiosity, the plot fell into place and French nabbed my undivided attention (despite this being the final week of classes and grading piling up like snow in a Canadian storm). Wit and psychological perspicacity win me over every time and when Rob says of his partner, Cassie Maddox (another play on truth in her name; clever, I thought), “I stopped falling in love with her and started to like her immensely,” despite this paradox, French had me. What can I say: I’m a reader, I contain multitudes.
Though Rob’s narration was, to start, too lyrical and literary-pretentious, French’s attempt to capture our frustrations with lost memories was beautiful and compelling: “Something dark leaped in my mind — home early, No, Mammy, nothing’s wrong — but it was far too deep to catch.” That shadow at the edge of our eye, the edge of consciousness, when we’re frightened of the peripheral-vision shadow that follows as we stagger from bed, half-asleep, for a glass of water or a toilette-run, the nightmare leaving us gasping even when we can’t recall its content, that’s what French does well as she tells the story of Ryan, trying to solve one crime as it meshes with the crime he can’t remember, the one that blighted his childhood. (He and two friends, on a carefree summer day, walked into a wood and only he emerged, mute, shocked, and wiped of every memory of what he witnessed.)
Until now, I’ve made Rob into a loner-detective and thus misrepresented French. Another strength to her novel was the relationships among her police-characters, but mainly Rob’s with his partner, Cassie Maddox. Her ethical core, steadfast loyalty and love contrasted with Rob’s chaotic and blind illusions. And yet, I didn’t dislike him. He had a lot to carry, was an idiot when it came to women (and is there a little feminist twist to his portrayal, god I hope so). Mainly it was pride, old-fashioned Greek-gods hubris, that did him in. And it was Cassie’s humility that didn’t, though she didn’t emerge unscathed either.
As I approached the novel’s last quarter, I had the sinking feeling of disappointment I experience with every mystery novel, even one as great as French’s. (There’s something about the mystery-solving that disenchants in a way the romance’s formulaic HEA doesn’t.) I think because French’s novel had been so new, fresh, and compelling for hundreds of pages, I could see where, to bring the mystery to conclusion, she would have to resort to stereotype … maybe, to be generous, I’ll concede to archetype. Yet, what was unpredictable was contained in the predictable, not with satisfaction, but inhabiting that elusive edge of consciousness, the no-man’s-land of the crime French doesn’t solve that I will think about in the years to come rather than the one, solved, I’ll forget.