I’m not a fan of murder mysteries. Truth is, I just don’t care why someone murdered someone else. Plus there’s the violence (grisly), the sex (cop-on-cop, cop-on-suspect), the conventional motives (jealousy, insanity, payback for molestation), the handful of suspects (lover, neighbor, father), and the revelation that it was…whomever. I don’t care.
Perhaps, then, I’m exactly the kind of reader Tana French set out to pistol-whip when she wrote In the Woods. I’m the cocky, I’ve-seen-it-all snob, who looks down on “page-turners” like they’re the Doritos of literary cuisine, tasty yet empty.
Well, she got me. She got me good. And here’s how she did it.
The 2-Page Prologue: This is French walking into the YMCA noon basketball league, handling a ball while she’s waiting for the next game. You know, at once, that she can play, that this is someone who can throw a no-look, half-court bounce pass in transition. It’s the same with writers. The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. It’s silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises–rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. This is French saying, “Can you hang with me? Can you catch my fucking bounce pass?”
The Lead Detectives Don’t Want to Bang Each Other: The relationship between Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox is the best part of this whole book. French gives us two people who finish each other’s sentences, who trust one another’s hunches, who get drunk after a hard day of witness interviews and autopsies–then pass out in the same bed. They hold each other’s secret history and they often hold each other. Yet, they’re not awash in sexual tension. It’s just not there. And, no, Cassie’s not a lesbian.
French does a masterful job. Maybe it sounds easy, but try writing a compelling story where the two leads (male and female) are young, single, adrenaline-charged heterosexual cops who, of course, drink Jameson’s by the bottle, try to keep them from shagging. It’s like bouncing on a diving board for ten minutes and then going inside without ever jumping in the water. In fact, maintaining the platonic relationship creates its own tension, since readers like me are so jaded to the inevitable boning that we keep waiting for that other shoe to drop. But French dodges inevitability, she sidesteps it with ease throughout, creating a dynamic between the detectives that most writers would kill for in their coming-of-age novel.
Two Strange Crimes That May or May Not Have Something to Do with Each Other: Again, this might sound like a modern convention–the all-too-familiar conspiracy thriller where the death of an Arkansas school teacher is linked to the murder of a CEO in Kuwait–but it’s not. Or is it? Two children disappear in the early 1980s and twenty years later a young ballet student is murdered. What really drives the narrative is the possibility that the crimes are connected, and French’s offerings of dead-ends, twists, and revelations are infinitely smarter than the best Law and Order rerun. (Rest in peace Jerry Orbach.)
The one connection she does allow is Detective Ryan. When he was a child, playing in the woods with his best friends, the other two disappeared, leaving him alone, bloody-socked, back-scratched, and lacking all memory of what the fuck just happened. He’s also the lead detective on the ballet student murder, which has taken place in the very same woods.
Again, when I first started reading I didn’t think she’d be able to pull it off. I thought she’d set up too many buses to jump on her motocross and crash into the last one or clear them all only to wipe out on the ramp. Endings are hard. They’ve got to be both surprising and inevitable, and so often you can only get one. But if French is part Knievel, then she’s also part James Wood. She’s read enough to know that great writers take risks they know they can handle. She cleared the buses. She nailed the landing.
The Villain: Well, I can’t tell you who did it, but I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t see it coming until it was right there. And, no, there isn’t a supernatural explanation. No creature is responsible for the murders. That’s my only spoiler. The Woods is a scary place, but French never fills it with goblins and banshies. She puts too much into her characters to pull a cop-out like that. She does, however, hint at the odd sounds and strange figures that inhabit the Irish woods, which are much more disturbing when sketched lightly.
In the end, Tana French more than won me over. I’ve got the pistol-whip scar to prove it.