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Tana French – In the Woods

October 22, 2009

125. In the Woods by Tana French (2007)
Dublin Murder Squad, Book 1

Length: 432 pages
Genre: Mystery

Started: 16 October 2009
Finished: 19 October 2009

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? I remember seeing it around the blogs (don’t remember whose; it was at least a year ago), and people seemed to love it, so I thought I’d try it.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 13 November 2008.
Verdict? Keeper.

A brutal murder
might expose more secrets than
Ryan’s ready for.

Summary: Twenty years ago, three twelve-year-old children ran off to play in the woods near their Dublin suburb. When they don’t return home, a search party is mounted, and only one of the children is found, digging his fingernails into a tree trunk in terror, his t-shirt torn in four diagonal slashes, wearing sneakers filled with someone else’s blood, and with absolutely no memory of whatever happened to him and his friends. That boy has grown up to be Detective Rob Ryan, and although he has never recovered his memories, he’s not particularly traumatized by the event, and he works on the Murder squad with his partner Cassie Maddox with nary a problem. That is, until they get handed a case of a young girl found murdered at an archaeological dig… in the same woods where his childhood friends went missing. Although two decades separate the cases, Ryan can’t quite shake the conviction that they’re connected… and that the latest murder will wind up rattling everything in his life that he had previously thought was stable.

Review: This book affected me more profoundly than anything I’ve read for a long time. I read the first half of the book relatively slowly, taking my time and savoring French’s wonderful way with the language, but then I sat and read the entire second half of the book in one evening… and it may have been the fact that I was up way past my normal bedtime, or the fact that I had been sitting still for so long, or my scratchy contacts, or something, but man, the last hundred pages just absolutely wrung me out, left me feeling sad and heavy and hollow, and with a sore throat like I’d been holding back tears for a few hours. That’s not something I expect from a mystery (not something I expect from any book ever, really), but here’s the thing: relatively little of that feeling had to do with the actual mystery itself.

The wonderful thing about this novel is that while it’s ostensibly a mystery, it’s really a character-driven story dressed up in a mystery’s clothing. I fell in love with Ryan and Maddox very soon after meeting them, and watching the ways the investigation affected them was far more compelling than watching the investigation itself. It’s not that the murder case wasn’t interesting – I’ll cop to watching the odd episode of a police procedural now and again, and In the Woods‘s case was well-done, with all of the clues on the table and the solution complex enough not to be obvious, but not so complex as to be implausible. It’s just that Ryan and Maddox are the heart of the story, and they’re enough to keep things ticking along during the inevitable part where the investigation stalls out – in fact, the only parts I thought dragged were the parts where the focus was too much on the details of the police work and not enough on the people doing it. Likewise, the murder is essentially solved with almost 100 pages left in the book, but it doesn’t feel like French is dragging out the denoument – because while the murder’s over, the story wasn’t. The ending didn’t leave me completely satisfied, but it didn’t exactly leave me dissatisfied, either, and I can see that other ways of wrapping things up wouldn’t have had the same narrative power… And judging by how I felt when I finished, power is one thing In the Woods has in spades.

Another thing Tana French has in abundance is a flair for wordcraft. It’s very rare that I write down quotes from the book I’m reading, but this book made me want to. The only reason I didn’t is that I realized by page 20 that there was a paragraph I wanted to copy out verbatim from every page, and that by spending the time copying them down, I was missing out on actually reading them. There’s something about French’s language that is so beautiful and evocative that you just want to roll around in it, let it sit on your tongue and in your brain, wrap yourself up in it like a pile of warm laundry. I can’t quite believe that a story this well crafted and this evocatively written is a first novel – but it is, and I will absolutely be reading the rest of French’s work. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Between this and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’m starting to rethink my aversion to detective mysteries. Although they’ve got some differences, if you like one, I think you’ll like the other, and if you like your stories character-driven, I bet you’ll like both, no matter what your favorite genre.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Big A Little A, Book Addiction, Book Chatter and Other Stuff, Books and Movies, Books I Done Read, Care’s Online Book Club, Caribousmom, Confessions of a Bibliophile, Crime Scraps, Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?, Jen’s Book Thoughts, Jenny’s Books, Kittling: Books, Lesley’s Book Nook, Linus’s Blanket, Ms. Bookish, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, My Random Acts of Reading, NextRead, On My Bookshelf, Paperback Reader, Popin’s Lair, Presenting Lenore, Reading Matters, S. Krishna’s Books, Sam’s Book Blog, Stephanie’s Written Word, Whimpulsive
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s.

Cover Thoughts: Although the book itself was, at any given point, only very rarely creepy, it did have a sinister undertone running through it that is reflected very nicely by the cover. (We’ll ignore the fact that the trees had leaves on them when both incidents occurred.)

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 27: ““Her head’s smashed in, but Cooper found petechial hemorrhaging and some possible ligature marks on her neck, too, so we’ll have to wait for the post for cause of death.”” – A small purplish spot on a body surface, such as the skin or a mucous membrane.
  • p. 36: ““Finds,” said Hunt, flapping a hand at the shelves. “I suppose . . . Well, no, maybe some other time. Some very nice jettons and clothing hooks.”” – an inscribed counter or token.
  • p. 105: “A rustle, and the beams skidding up to cross on a pair of golden eyes, rocking wild and luminous only a few trees away; all of us yelling, and Jamie leaping up to fire a spare satsuma as the thing bounded away with a crash of leaves.” – A seedless mandarin orange native to Japan and the hardiest commercial citrus fruit.
  • p. 110: ““That _________ lad used to be a bit of a bowsie, so he did, but the moment he got that young one in the family way – sure, he wasn’t the same fella at all.”” – a Dublin term-for a scumbag/Kancker/scanger.
  • p. 208: “A drop had got caught in her eyelashes and a black mascara tear trickled to her cheekbone, making her look like a modish little Pierrette.” – the female counterpart of a Pierrot, usually accompanying him, as in an entertainment or masquerade.
  • p. 217: ““Little gurriers,” Mrs. Fitzgerald said with relish. “Spitting on the ground and all. My father always said that was a sure sign of bad rearing, spitting.”” – Irish pejorative for a person who is associated with petty criminality.
  • p. 248: ““If that motorway doesn’t go through Knocknaree, and fast,” Sam said succinctly, “the boy’s banjaxed.”” – demolished; ruined.
35 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2009 12:26 am

    So glad you liked it! But do yourself a favor and get a copy of THE LIKENESS. It was so much better. I read it over a year ago and haven’t read a book that’s as good as THE LIKENESS.

    • October 22, 2009 12:37 pm

      Trish – No worries, I mooched a copy of The Likeness when I was at about page 250 of In the Woods. ;)

  2. October 22, 2009 1:27 am

    This book looks good, but I wound up giving my copy to my grandmother… I just don’t have time to read everything, so figured I might as well not have it go to waste! Your review makes me think I should have held on to it, but oh well!

    • October 22, 2009 12:38 pm

      Kailana – Well, it’s not like the copy you gave to your grandmother was the last copy in existence, either; if you decide you do want to read it, I’m sure you can get your hands on it somehow!

  3. October 22, 2009 3:27 am

    I have this sitting on my shelf and look forward to it. Although I didn’t like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at all, so I hope I’ll like this one in the end!!

    • October 22, 2009 12:39 pm

      Joanna – Hmmm, what didn’t you like about TGwtDT? Them being so similar is just my perception, though, so please don’t let that scare you off of giving this one a try.

  4. October 22, 2009 5:37 am

    I reviewed this a few months ago:

    I was somewhat disappointed but reading crime fiction is a departure for me.

    • October 22, 2009 12:43 pm

      Claire – I’ve added your link! You’re not alone in feeling let down by the non-resolution of the 1984 case; that’s why I didn’t give the book five stars, and I was torn between a 4 and a 4.5.

  5. October 22, 2009 7:51 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with Trish! Go out and pick up a copy of The Likeness. O.M.G. I love Tana French and cannot wait until she writes another one.

    • October 22, 2009 12:44 pm

      christina – I am definitely looking forward to The Likeness, especially since I kind of have a bit of a girl-crush on Cassie, and want to see what she’s like as a narrator. :-D

  6. October 22, 2009 9:00 am


    Now that that’s out of my system – I agree, Tana French is a very good writer. I loved the thing Ryan said (I don’t remember exactly), “If she had hurt me, I could have forgiven her without thinking about it; but I couldn’t forgive her for being hurt.” Lovely.

    • October 22, 2009 12:46 pm

      Jenny – For some reason, in my brain, satsumas were closely related to turnips, which is why I had to look it up… it just didn’t make sense that kids would have a pile of turnips up in their tree house. Oranges make a lot more sense. :)

      And I liked that line as well – so clear and recognizeable and just so well-said.

  7. October 22, 2009 9:44 am

    Well I’d better figure out where this is on my TBR shelves, because your review is REALLY making me want to read it.

    • October 22, 2009 12:47 pm

      Jen – Go dig it out! There are definitely some creepy passages that make it a good fall read, too (even though it’s mostly set in the summer, I think.)

  8. October 22, 2009 9:50 am

    Wow! I’ve had this one for a while and I don’t think it’s moved since it’s come in the house. It sounds like French is a wonderfully talented author if she moved you so much with this book.

    • October 22, 2009 12:49 pm

      bermudaonion – I had it on the shelves for almost a year without giving it a second glance between acquisition and reading, but then I was in the mood for something out of my usual – not fantasy, not YA, not historical fiction – and my eyes stuck on it… and I’m glad they did.

  9. October 22, 2009 11:01 am

    Great review, as usual. I’m also beginning to rethink my aversion to mysteries. I don’t know when I decided I wasn’t a fan, but I’m beginning to wonder why and how I ever came to that decision. I’m looking forward to picking this one up.

    • October 22, 2009 12:52 pm

      Monstrosity – I think my problem with mysteries is that there are just so many boring, formulaic, and poorly written ones out there that they kind of flood the market. I’m sure that’s true for every genre – I know there are tons of crappy fantasy novels, for instance – but I don’t know enough about the mystery genre to be able to reliably pick out the jewels from the paste on my own.

  10. October 22, 2009 1:58 pm

    Your review has convinced me that I need to read this one. I’m not huge on mysteries because I am more into characters than “who did it” so this book may be right up my alley.

  11. October 22, 2009 2:10 pm

    I have this book on my tbr list. I am so glad you really liked it that just supports my choice for keeping it in my humongous and every growing list.

  12. October 22, 2009 5:24 pm

    Tana French has such a lovely way with words. I really loved the relationship between Cassie and Ryan. I’ve just finished The Likeness, but unlike most other readers, I didn’t like it as much as In the Woods. I’m still trying to figure out why so I can write my review!

  13. October 22, 2009 6:24 pm

    Awesome review! I too loved this book (as you know, thanks for the link btw) and I’m currently about 100 pages into The Likeness… it’s great so far! I really hope you get a chance to pick it up soon. :)

  14. October 23, 2009 10:33 am

    I usually love mysteries. But I got about halfway through this one and set it aside. That was over a year ago…I do want to give it another try, but I know I will have to start reading from the beginning.

  15. October 23, 2009 4:04 pm

    We read In the Woods for book club and it generated a lot of discussion and at least 3 of us bought the 2nd book. I just haven’t yet gotten to it.

  16. October 25, 2009 12:41 pm

    Such a great review ; I’m glad you liked it! I bought it a while ago and haven’t gotten to it yet, but I’m hoping to soon. I see this book and The Likeness more and more around the blogs, I’m afraid I’ll be the last one to read it! And I love a character driven mystery.

  17. January 23, 2010 10:27 am

    I”ve been reading such good things about this book. I definitely have to give it a try. I love character-driven mysteries

  18. olivia permalink
    December 26, 2011 10:38 pm

    I didn’t understand the significagance of the artifact found at the end of the novel?


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