Stuck at twelve

Book Book Review, Title In the Woods, Author Tana French, Rating 3.5, Stuck at twelve

In the Woods

Tana French

Book Review

Rather than mainly a rational whodunit, Tana French's In the Woods is a psychological drama, an intricate set of well-executed character studies embedded in the story of a police investigation into a child murder.

Spoiler alert: This review alludes to some of the final outcomes of what is, after all, a mystery novel.

Rob and Cassie, novice detectives and partners on the Dublin Murder Squad, have each experienced a defining blow delivered by fate during their formative years. Rob walked in the woods at age twelve with two companions, a familiar place of play and adventure, and was the only one to emerge; his companions were suspected of being murdered, and never found, nor was the case ever solved. He came out of those woods with no memory of those events, and no one in his daily life but his partner Cassie is aware of his childhood past.

Cassie was a college student nearly finished with studies in psychology, who left university to join the cops. What she revealed to no one but her partner Rob was that she was victimized by a sociopath, who set out successfully to ruin her reputation and her friendships, just because he was bored, just because he could. This experience made her wary, and provided her with a hard-won understanding of sociopathic behavior.

But the gods have not finished with Rob: The child murder he and Cassie are assigned to solve took place in the very woods he walked out of twenty years previous. (OK, pretty clumsy plot device in some ways, but good use is made of it.)

The novel is disappointingly excellent, with the emphasis on excellent.

Disappointing because the intricately crafted partnership and budding romance between the two lead detectives fell apart; the instigator of the murder went unpunished (not very believably, I might add, unless the procedural mistakes around which Law and Order built many of its stories must always be consequential), and the possibly related cold case remained unsolved and even more mysterious.

Excellent because a little noir never hurt a good mystery novel, but especially because the final surprising and brutal turns of the story are ultimately relevatory. Rob’s close and playful, but platonic relationship with Cassie is a large focus of the novel. Both Rob and Cassie had been wounded emotionally, and seemed easy with an intimacy that did not overtly flirt with adult sexuality. Their story is built around a conceit expressed in Rob Reiner’s film When Harry Met Sally, that men and women struggle to sustain a close platonic relationship without sexual complications.

Via Rob’s first-person retrospective, over the course of the story the author slowly and obliquely revealed the source of Rob’s instinct to keep his relationship with Cassie asexual: At age twelve, a budding adolescent, Rob went in the woods, and never came out.

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