Reading Tana French’s IN THE WOODS

Morning_Sky_Dec_16_2021Three 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.

19 thoughts on “Reading Tana French’s IN THE WOODS

  1. Hi Kay,

    I was looking for you on Twitter and couldn’t find you: did you delete
    your account?

    Since you liked French’s /In the Woods/, you will LOVE /The Likeness/.
    It’s one of my top 10 reads of all time and even months later I keep
    thinking about it.

    How are you doing? How is Mama B? I hope you are hanging in there with
    the difficult situation of being her caregiver, especially now that she
    is declining.

    We are doing well over here. I I found out that I got a part-time job
    for Jan-April 2022 as a mentor in the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild’s
    Mentorship Program. Mentors and apprentices have to apply for the
    program, and every year they choose four of each to match up. I’ve
    applied before and didn’t get in, so I’m really excited that they
    accepted me this time! I’ll be working remotely with my apprentice,
    helping her develop and polish her novel, and in May I’ll be flying to
    Saskatchewan for the Apprentice Readings night, which includes a
    reception. As far as I’m concerned, this is the perfect job, and I hope
    I can do more of it! I’ve already met my apprentice over Zoom and she is
    delightful.

    Michael and I are going to Cuba for a week (leaving this Friday—eeek)
    before the kids and grandkids descend on us for the last week of December.

    Merry Christmas!

    Clarissa

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    1. Hi Clarissa!

      Thank you so much for your wonderful message! I did delete my Twitter account: I was scrolling too much, it was playing havoc with my focus and I wasn’t reading like I used to. I wasn’t engaging, just scrolling. Best decision I made: gone are the romance-convo days, though I did want to write to wish you a merry Christmas too!

      Mama and I are hanging in there and thus far, with me taking on all the cooking, banking, house-repairing, we’re doing all right. I can see the dark dementia clouds on the horizon, but for now, we’re fine and will try to enjoy our holidays.

      Congratulations on the mentorship program: it’s ideal for you and your “apprentice” will learn so much from you!! Sounds wonderful. I did some private academic advising over Zoom and I must say, I enjoyed it too.

      Cuba!! Sun and fun: hope you have a great time and have a safe trip there and home!!, K, MissB

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  2. I had meant to read Tana French’s In the Woods, and then I watched a British production of it that combined this book with another one featuring the same detectives. I enjoyed every minute of that show, but those who had read both books were taken aback by how they were combined.

    For that reason, I will probably go back and read In the Woods, but I also read Tana French’s Broken Harbor, and I loved that, too.

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    1. Yes! I saw that show was on. Because I had the Dublin Murder Squad books piled up on the endless TBR, I thought I’d wait to watch. Now that you say they combine the first two books, I’m so glad I did. I’ll wait to watch it when I’m done with The Likeness, the second in the series and one they combined with In the Woods. (After this one, I bought all the French, including Witch Elm and her latest, The Searcher.)

      Oh, I do hope you read it, I think you’ll enjoy it very much! Happy holidays!!

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  3. I love this read, and I really did love this book. I have a theory that books that become super mega ultra bestsellers–and French’s would qualify–often break out because they find readers outside of that genre. So I’m not much of a mystery reader, but I read and loved this…despite seeing how a mystery reader would likely hate some of the things about it. (The same frequently happens with romances.)

    I actually enjoyed The Likeness (the next book, Cassie’s book) even more than In the Woods, so I’ll be curious if you pick that up what you think.

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    1. Thank you!!! I think your theory is spot-on and a great example is the popularity of Outlander, which romance readers have trouble with.

      I’m quite the mystery reader and always have been. Though I abandoned all for romance for a years, I’m probably reading as much mystery as romance, or other genres these days. It’s funny what you said about mystery readers not liking French: I had the opposite reaction. I didn’t like what she kept of certain “crime fic” conventions and loved all the ways she bent the genre.

      I’m really looking forward to The Likeness, especially now that you and Clarissa liked it even better than In the Woods.

      Another mystery writer French reminds me of, in terms of doing interesting things with the genre, is Laura Lippman. I read her Lady in the Lake a few years ago. I didn’t find it as compelling as French’s, but I’m still thinking about it.

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      1. What mystery fans objected was the solution to Rob/Adam’s friends’ disappearance or murder being unsolved. It seemed to some to break the central promise of a mystery, in the same way that a lack of an HEA would break the central promise of romance.

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        1. Yes, I can totally see that. And even though I was intrigued and a little frustrated, I think that aspect of the novel was its strongest. I read an interview with French, maybe in The Guardian, where she says she knows what happened to Rob’s friends. I’m curious, but also want the mystery to remain. All around, it’s a book to think about and discuss. I’ll have to go back and reread bits of it b/c the writing is pretty wonderful too.

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          1. I reread this and The Likeness earlier in the fall. The writing really is marvelous. I enjoyed pretty much all the Murder Squad books. I also LOVED The Witch Elm (though I knew lots of folks who found it slow and insufficiently focused on the mystery), but I flat out hated The Searcher. I’m curious what her next project will be though.

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            1. Me too … and I’m looking forward to all of them. She did say she’s done with the Murder Squad books because she doesn’t want to get into a series rut. So, another series, or continue with these standalones. Like you, given the writing, I’ll keep reading her. I’m glad I got The Searcher in a Kindle sale, though it hurt, b/c I prefer paper!

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        2. That’s interesting, because I’ve read mysteries where a supposed solution was undermined, leaving the identity of the murderer and victim ambiguous, and there didn’t seem to be the same sort of outcry. Reviewers were dissatisfied but didn’t seem to view it as breaking some sort of genre promise. (This in the middle of a long-running series, and no, it wasn’t resolved later on.)

          I took a look at a sample of this book and the writing not only didn’t draw me in, it made my head hurt. So I decided not to get it.

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  4. In my opinion, all of French’s books are compelling. Her writing takes me to places I do not expect. I am not normally a big fan of dark books, but hers mostly work for me. My favorite of all of them (for reasons I cannot articulate very well) is Faithful Place, the 3rd in the Dublin Murder Squad trilogy.

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  5. Just adding another to the number of folks saying they too admire French and have their own favorites. I think she can maybe be a BIT overinvolved, but she almost always keeps me gripped from beginning to end.

    I am sorry you’ve left Twitter: your voice is missed. (I do understand about the doomscrolling and its effects, though, for sure. I still cling to the belief that the site is what we make it, but that gets harder to sustain, especially as more people who used it for the kinds of conversations I cherish step away.) It sounds like you are having the best kind of holiday possible, though – best wishes to you and your mother for the season.

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    1. Hmm, that is a fascinating adjective to describe her work, even after, for me, only reading the one. You’re spot-on, too: she IS “overinvolved” but it does make for a compelling reading experience. I didn’t have one second where I was bored, reading In the Woods, but I was, on occasion, exasperated. The impatience is part of my appetitive nature, I think. 😉

      Thank you for your good wishes! I miss the best parts of Twitter, like you, too. It’s all me the departure though; I was too caught up in doom-scrolling all the ways it isn’t used for open, engaging conversations. Once I started second-guessing myself about what I said, and noticed how little reading I was actually doing, I thought it was time to go. I also thought, hey, the people I enjoy the most keep up blogs, so “duh”, we can always connect there. Now that blogs have moved into “old fogey” territory, they’re good forums again.

      I too wish you the best of the season! It looks like both our provinces are going back into covid restrictions, so all we can do is hope for a good outcome for our friends and family. Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy new year!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a good point about returning to blogs again. I would certainly be happy to see blog comments start to flourish again – they have dried up nearly completely at my own blog, which in turn can make it harder to feel motivated to keep up with posting, and thus the vicious circle begins.

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  6. Hmmm, I find it almost cyclical: there are posts that elicit comments and most remain “fallow”. My favourite comment is seeing a familiar face and steadfast reader. It’s good to hear from people. I tend to think of the blog as an opportunity to write, because I actually do very little of it, except for emails and recommendation letters, which is the majority of teacher writing. I may not always comment, mainly because I haven’t read the book you’re discussing, but I always always read it. And that’s hard to remember, I think: that there are “silent” readers out there, loyal to reading all your posts. I’m one!

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