A Story as Mysterious as a Forest

I read books for many different reasons. I was contentedly paging through the anthology edited by Gaiman on my rides to and from work until the workday grew longer and a short story wasn’t enough to disappear in. I needed something that would absorb me, invigorate me with the lives and feelings of characters new to me. A short story is over so fast and brevity would not help me escape from constant stream of numbers in my head.

I had seen positive reviews for Tana French’s newest novel and those often extolled the virtues of her debut, In the Woods. Thriller, mystery, whodunit, expertly plotted – all these compliments were cues that I could disappear in the forest of Ireland.

On a particularly rough day at work, I slipped out for a quick stop to pick up In the Woods. I started reading on the elevator ride back up to the 21st floor and was hooked. That fast. I knew I had found the book that would get me through a weeklong audit.

Detective Rob Ryan has a secret that only five people know, including his partner on the Murder Squad, Cassie Maddox. He was one of three children who disappeared in the woods near Knocknaree. He was the only one who returned.

They are brought back to Knocknaree to investigate the murder of a young local girl, a ballerina the town fundraised to send to an elite school. Connections between the recent murder and Ryan’s past come to light and the duo work hard to keep the lid on his relation to the town.

The case is no slam-dunk. The girl is found on the site of an archeological dig, which is occurring against the clock – a motorway will be built over the site in just one month. A local coalition headed by the victim’s father vocally fights the construction. To handle the political aspect of the investigation, a third detective is brought in.

Detective Sam O’Neill’s uncle is a career politician so he can wade through treacherous waters without rocking the boat too strongly. Sam is also an excellent foil to the established rapport between Ryan and Maddox. He begins to join their nightly dinners to discuss the case and wonders, silently, what their relationship is truly about. The whole squad swings between assuming the two partners have slept together to believing Ryan when he says they never had.

This story is Ryan’s and presents every meticulous detail of the case until he begins to break down. This is French’s greatest strength in the novel – never mind the superb plotting and excellent character development, I most appreciated the journey of Ryan’s descent as he attempts to remember what happened in the woods when he was a child. He never could and the effort is maddening. Without ever stooping to crazy, run-on sentences, French is able to capture Ryan’s unease and fear.

I found myself finding ways to sneak extra pages. A couple more when I reached my desk. A full chapter during a lunch eaten in front of the computer. A hefty 400-plus pages, despite my best efforts, it lasted the week. I was sorry to reach the end, as satisfying and unresolved as it was. I will definitely be buying The Likeness, Detective Maddox’s story, and her newest as well.

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