Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review-- In the Woods

Title: In the Woods
Author: Tana French
ISBN: 9780143113492/ Penguin Books, 2008
Genre: Mystery, Police Procedural
Rating: C+

First Line: What I want you to remember is that I'm a detective.

Twelve-year-old Katy Devlin's body has been discovered on the site of an archaeological dig. Murder Squad detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox get their first big case, and both are determined to solve it. Cassie Maddox is the only person who knows that in 1984, her partner was involved in another high profile case in the same location. Twenty years ago Ryan went with his friends into the woods in Knocknaree, Ireland, and Ryan was the only one who came out. Investigating a case in the same area makes Ryan want to solve his own as well, since he remembers nothing of what happened to his friends or himself.

I was immediately hooked in the prologue by French's writing:

This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping-chants.... This summer will never end.

The two separate cases drew me in, too. I wanted to know who killed Katy Devlin, and I wanted to know what happened to Ryan and his friends in the woods. Ryan and Maddox both interested me, and I settled in for a long, enjoyable read. (Do you feel a "but" coming?) But...somewhere along the two-thirds mark, it all began to fall seriously apart.

What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this-- two things: I crave truth. And I lie.

So Ryan warns us at the beginning. Am I bothered when fictional characters lie to me? No. Living, breathing humans lie, so fictional characters should too once in a while. However (first cousin to "but"), the more I read the more I became annoyed with Ryan. Packed off to boarding school after his friends disappeared, Ryan made up stories about his friends and his life. Children do this. He was in shock, in mourning for his friends, and he didn't want to be a misfit in his new surroundings. As Ryan aged, it became a matter of stupidity and laziness over duplicity for me. After boarding school, he spent two years in a squalid bedsit, living on the dole and doing nothing but watching the sun strike the prism hanging in the window and reading books. I love reading more than most, but those two years would have driven me up a wall. Time and again, Ryan makes stupid choices that endanger not only his career but his relationships with co-workers and friends. A lack of common sense once or twice is human. Lacking common sense on a regular basis makes me want to get a handful of a character's neck and shake him a few times.

Time to get past Ryan here. The identity of Katy Devlin's killer was no mystery whatsoever to me, and the way that the solution to the disappearance of Ryan's childhood friends was never given annoyed me. I don't need all the loose ends in a book to be tied up by the time the last page is read, but the way the solution was avoided in In the Woods gave me the feeling that it was a cliffhanger plot device, wanting to ensure that everyone read the next book. Some things in life are never meant to be known, to be explained. I feel that the disappearance of Ryan's friends is one of those things and shouldn't be held in front of me like a carrot.

Although I loved French's use of language, when I think of how irritating her main character was and of the way the cold case was left dangling, I have to admit that I'm in no hurry to read the author's next book-- even though I know The Likeness focuses on Maddox and not Ryan.


  1. I agree with your take. The second book is very different, Barbara Vine-esque about students living in a country house, with Maddox undercover. Most of the book is about the students and Maddox's angst, so given its length I felt that it was not quite for me either (plus two big coincidences are necessary to explain the plot). Somehow this author has a jolly good, lean police procedural in her, and I would like to read that!

    By the way, isn't the word in your first-line quote "want" not "warn"?

  2. I have a surprise for you on my blog.

  3. Whoa! that opening quote is awesome. But I haven't felt compelled to read this book, and I'm still not sure.

  4. This book is in my TBR pile - I'm sorry to hear it isn't any better than that.

  5. I reviewed this book two days ago and liked it more than you do, but I agree that Ryan is annoying, and that the ending does not quite live up to what she promises.

  6. Cassie was the character that made me insane. I found her incredibly shallow, all histrionics and not much more. And not interesting enough to make me want to read about her again.

    French writes beautiful prose, but like you, I didn't like the way she used Ryan's mystery as a carrot. And the solution for the contemporary mystery was just too obvious.

  7. I liked this book, mostly, but I did come close to abandoning it because Ryan annoyed me so much. Unfortunately, the annoyances would be spoilers so no details here. I agree with Cathy's review.

  8. Wow - so many people in agreement on this one! I must be the lone dissenter... :)

    I really liked this book! I didn't guess who the killer was (although a lot of book reviews say they do, so I must not connect the dots very well!). I thought Ryan was self-centered, flawed, and ultimately kind of a jerk - but I liked that he was a flawed character! I feel like that type of character is more "real" somehow, than a protagonist that you either like or hate. He's hard to pin down, you know?

    French's writing style was engaging and descriptive without being wordy. I also thought she was very funny!

    but again, I'm a minority - more reviews I've read seem to agree with you, Kittling, than with me! :)

  9. BookWormz, I'd say I liked 75-80% of the book. I worry a bit that I can get really picky about details that perhaps shouldn't get in the way of enjoyment. But there you go.

  10. Great review! I liked the book, but was annoyed with the unsolved case as well. One thing that annoyed me was that Ryan kept saying how he should have known this or should have known that, for the Katy murder, so I thought that we were all suppose to know who the killer was. But then in the end he says the killer fooled not only him, but us as well and I kept thinking, "No it didn't. Was it suppose to?"

    Tana French writes beautifully though and even though The Likeness isn't about Ryan, I'll probably pick it up eventually. Hopefully, in book 3 she'll tell us who killed Ryan's friends.

    ~ Popin

  11. Nevertheless a very interesting review and a book I would think about putting on my TBR. I am awfully busy in real life these days (and contemplating to quit blogging until June 1., but would probably end up missing you all too much) and my TBR is growing by the minute. But I like the initial plot of this book and even though you are not overly positive, I am still intrigued.

  12. Maxine--thanks for the sharp eyes, I've corrected that!

    Wisteria--oh, oh...more blog love? Thank you! I'll attend to it within the next couple of days!

    Corey--Cassie annoyed me, too, but not to the same extent as Ryan. As for the killer in the contemporary case, you and I must be naturally suspicious of that type!

    Wormz--Different strokes for different folks! :) You may connect the dots just fine. I just have a natural suspicion of people like that. I like flawed characters, too. They are more real. Perhaps it's a testament to French's skill in characterization that Ryan was so real that I wanted to slap him around?

    Mack--usually I'm pretty easy-going about details in a book, but sometimes I run across things that rub my fur the wrong way, and I just can't ignore them.

    Thanks, Popin! I felt the same way: Ryan, you might've been fooled, but that doesn't mean the rest of us were!

    Louise--I certainly hope you don't disappear until June--*I'd* miss you too much!

  13. Ah, I've been waiting for your reaction to this one, Cathy. It's one of the few adult books I've had time for recently. I picked it up at the library, interested because it had won an award for French.

    I thought her creative writing was wonderful - she used language so cleverly to create a mood, or sensations. But I wondered if she would be better sticking to literary novels rather than crime, because I didn't see the structure and character development needed to substantiate a crime novel. Of course, a literary novel could do with structure etc too! But maybe her passion lies away from writing crime? Idle thoughts.

  14. Susan--they may be idle thoughts, but they're certainly valid! I think, in the end, French couldn't make up her mind whether this was crime fiction or psychological suspense, and her indecision aided in my annoyance level! :)


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