In the Woods

I wouldn’t be the first person to say that Ireland has a mystic quality to it. Misty emerald isles jutting from the ocean with steep-cliffed shores, ringed with menhirs, crumbling castles, and barren rocky outcrops; abandoned homes dating to the Famine outside town, and sometimes right smack in the middle; every road seeming to have a goat track leading to a ring fort or some other ancient marker of eld; it’s an easy place to believe in things that go bump in the night.

Tana French‘s first novel, In the Woods, plays on this haunting quality of the country’s history and landscape. It begins with a childhood tragedy; Adam Ryan’s two best friends, Jamie and Peter, disappear one day when all three of them are playing in the woods outside their little town of Knocknaree. Adam is found later, clutching a tree so hard that his fingernails scar the bark. He remembers nothing.

20 years later he is a Detective in Dublin; a child has been killed, in those same woods, which are now part of an archaeological dig. Adam must confront the nightmare of his past, as he and his partners Cassie and Sam investigate the murder, and what links it may have with the past.

The young victim is found on an altar that dates to the Bronze Age, slated for destruction as a roadway cuts through. There are constant allusions to Ireland’s rich and bloody past, and it’s sudden upheaval from a depressed nation to the silicon isle it is becoming today. But the story is rooted in reality, and while French may play with our desires for it to be a boogeyman from Irish legend, we have enough monsters in the houses or cubicles next door to choose from.

I’ve never been a huge fan of police procedurals; they often fail to be character-driven, unlike detective novels. In the Woods is most certainly driven by its rich characters, told in the first person by Adam Ryan. He’s very close with his partner Cassie, who deserves (and gets) a novel of her own; she’s that smart and self-sufficient policewoman, who defies the stereotypes you expect; their relationship is one of the most enjoyable parts of the story, but as they delve into the town’s past to ferret out the killer, the darkness takes its toll.

Adam is a college boy with a nose for books, and French’s prose is appropriately rich. This is no page-a-minute thriller, though the gripping story drew me into its cozy Irish world. I traveled there last year, to my grandfather’s hometown of Bray, and to many nameless castles in the woods along the roads that might have been where Adam, Peter and Jamie played. It felt like being there again, and admittedly that’s part of the appeal for me. Some have found the ending disappointing, but it’s bittersweet. The plot takes twists and turns that you may not expect but will never find ridiculous; this is a masterfully crafted story that pulls no punches, from a narrator who may not always be the best witness.

I’m looking forward to Cassie’s own novel, The Likeness, which comes out in a few days.