Tana French is an author I had been meaning to read for quite some time. Some love her, some have mixed opinions and I was curious to know on which side of the fence I would fall. As of now, she has written six novels under the Dublin Murder Squad series and two standalone novels, and I decided to begin with the very first, In The Woods. My verdict – I really, really liked it.
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolour nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silk-screen blue.
Thus begins Tana French’s In The Woods, the first in the Dublin Murder Squad series, a fascinating gothic mystery, but also a beautifully written novel of memory, identity and childhood trauma.
The place is Knocknaree, a small County Dublin town, sparsely developed with its housing estate bordered by the deep, dense woods quite vast. During that particular summer in August 1984, three children aged twelve – Peter Savage, Jamie Rowan and Adam Ryan – ventured into the woods as usual, but two of them never returned. The woods were no stranger to the children; they knew it like the back of their hands.
These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the micro-landscapes of their own grazed knees; put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong. This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams.
So when they asked for permission that day to spend some time there, they were allowed to do so provided they were back in time for tea. But when the children failed to return by teatime, one of the parents knew that something was amiss. Large search parties went further into the forest to hunt for the children, and came across one of them – Adam Ryan – standing with his back and palms pressed against a large oak tree, his nails digging deep into the bark. Adam’s shoes were heavily bloodstained but otherwise he suffered minor injuries. However, he had no recollection of the events, of Jamie and Peter’s whereabouts, or why he was the only one to be discovered. Given Adam’s memory loss and no new leads, the case goes cold.
Fast forward to twenty years later. Our narrator is Rob Ryan, newly accepted into the elite Dublin Murder Squad, having assiduously worked his way to get there.
What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.
We immediately learn that Rob Ryan is actually Adam Ryan, but he has deliberately changed his identity to begin life anew and leave his troubled past behind. Also, a new recruit is Cassie Maddox, one of the very few women to find a place on the squad. Cassie is a tough young woman, exhibiting a flair for human psychology and profiling, adept at navigating the trickier moments of misogyny displayed by a heavily male squad. After a warm, cozy evening of wine, music and conversation reminiscent of their student days, Rob and Cassie quickly become best friends, pairing up to take on cases.
Gradually building up a solid reputation and a good solve rate, Rob and Cassie go from strength to strength until they land up with the Devlin case. For Rob, the Devlin case is a trigger for his old ghosts returning to haunt him. Strictly from a point of view of conflict, Rob shouldn’t be on the case, but he can’t tear himself away, a part of him wants to know the truth. What if the two cases are linked?
The brief outline of the case is this – at an archeological site in Knocknaree bordered by woods, the very woods where Rob’s friends vanished all those years ago, Katy Devlin, a twelve-year old girl, is found dead on a high rise altar. Brutally hit by a stone and subsequently strangled, Katy’s death sends shockwaves throughout the small Knocknaree community. We learn that Katy had become quite the talk of the town before her untimely death having secured a place at a prestigious ballet school for which the community had organized a fundraiser. Enmeshed in this story is the politics of the place – the archeological site is to be completely razed to make way for a motorway funded by nebulous corporations, a development that does not sit well with certain members of the community.
We are then introduced to a host of characters – the motley crew of archeologists digging for finds at the site, the dysfunctional Devlin family, the protestors signed up for the ‘Move the Motorway’ campaign, not to mention certain key figures from Rob’s past.
In The Woods, then, is a fascinating exploration of fractured memories, the elusive aspect of them; memories like jagged shards that pierce the consciousness when least expected. It’s a closer look at how certain events can trigger seismic shifts in memories forcing those wedged in the subterranean recesses of the mind to suddenly reveal themselves, but that too only partly. For Rob, the Devlin murder in Knocknaree is too close to home, a painful reminder of a traumatic period he would rather forget. Rob is an extremely flawed character, and as the novel progresses seems more and more lost grappling with a range of emotions – anger, guilt, suspicion and fear. It is crystal clear that the trauma entrenched within him is unresolved threatening to spill over into his work and personal relationships jeopardizing them.
And then, too, I had learned early to assume something dark and lethal hidden at the heart of anything I loved. When I couldn’t find it, I responded, bewildered and wary, in the only way I knew how: by planting it there myself.
French uses the Devlin murder as a medium to study the widening cracks in society, particularly the unholy nexus between politicians and property developers and how small time residents end up getting a raw deal.
Corruption is taken for granted, even grudgingly admired: the guerilla cunning of the colonized is still ingrained into us, and tax evasion and shady deals are seen as forms of the same spirit of rebellion that hid horses and seed potatoes from the British.
References are made to the Celtic Tiger, or ‘Ireland’s Economic Miracle’ and the accumulation of wealth it fuelled, how the generation before it slipped through the cracks never to corner a slice of the country’s rapidly expanding wealth pie.
There’s a gothic feel to this book amplified by the fear of the unknown; the deep, dark, mysterious forest at once terrifying and familiar. The other strength of the book is the depiction of Rob’s relationship with Cassie, the camaraderie and banter between them becomes a febrile ground for close friendship to the point that they gradually become comfortable sharing their secrets with each other, secrets they have told no one else.
It’s a deliciously slow-burn of a novel (although at times one does feel it’s a tad too long), but French’s prose is electrifying and gorgeous, blurring the lines between literary fiction and traditional crime. She is interested in character studies, of delving into their minds…highlighting the psychological aspects which expose their flaws as well as their strengths. The flashbacks often have a filmic quality to them, tinged with nostalgia and regret and French is great at portraying the simplicity and innocence of children to whom the complex world of adults is unfathomable.
Trauma is a theme that pulsates throughout the novel; French is particularly keen to examine this topic from varied angles. For instance, while the events of Adam’s childhood form the core of this theme, Cassie is not without scars either having been profoundly affected in her student days by the actions of a pathological liar.
In a straightforward police procedural, the solving of the crime takes centrestage, the resolution is neat with the threads all tied up, and I liked how In The Woods refused to conform to these requirements. It’s a beautifully written crime novel, melancholic, haunting and poignant, a reminder of how our childhood crucially defines who we shape up as adults.
I have now bought the rest of the books in the Dublin Murder Squad series and am looking forward to making my way through them.