I like old fashion whodunits, especially ones set in small towns and villages. Part of the appeal, I guess, is that as cliché as it may seem, there is always an underbelly to small town life, a darkness that is usually covered up or ignored by the folks that live within its limits.
That was part of the appeal for me to finally get around to Irish author Tana French’s debut 2007 novel In the Woods.
“As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
“Twenty years later, the found boy, Adam Rob Ryan (and now using his middle name), is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox—his partner and closest friend—find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.”
There is a lot of darkness here, and French’s prose is strong, descriptive and well executed. Rob and Cassie are fully realized, three dimensional humans who feel familiar, yet remain cagey and eccentric. But the book also features an unreliable narrator, ("What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this - two things: I crave truth. And I lie") which takes getting used to.
Most of the time, I felt that Rob’s memory lapses of his childhood (especially since he tells the reader repeatedly he has excellent recollection of things) was a red herring, but at least by the books end, we get some revelation into what happened in 1984. But that turned out be more of a disappointing “maguffin” as the books murder mystery (with its lurid, Law & Order, ripped from the headlines ending) took over the last 60 pages or so of the novel. Plus, by then, Rob had become an annoying, very whiny, very pedantic, inept detective.
Plus, why does no one recognize him? Sure he and his family moved away from Knocknaree, and he’s 32 instead of 12, and has changed, but he could’ve not changed that much where the folks (99% whom still live there) would not catch on (which also begs the question of how even his commanding officer, an stereotypical Irish cop who shouts and hates complicated things like a murder that has shades of gray versus the good old black and white, would not know his background either) that Rob Ryan was indeed Adam Ryan.
I agree that book is gorgeously written, and the characters are very well crafted and sympathetic, but I felt cheated in the end. I dislike authors who do this because there is no indication that this was the start of a new series –at least in 2007- when it was released State side. I’m guessing in her follow up novel, The Likeness, we get another look into Rob’s past. But from what I read, it focuses on Cassie mostly.