By: James Bartlett
Tana French is an Irish American actress-writer who now lives in Dublin. Her first two mystery novels of six, In the Woods and The Likeness, were adapted for television as the Dublin Murder Squad Series. French’s story is interesting and probably unsettling for some established writers who spent years trying to succeed in the uncertain world of publishing. Evidently, French never started out to be a best-selling novelist.
French was always interested in writing but focused more on acting. After training at Trinity to be an actress, there was a lull in work and French used the time to write a murder mystery novel, In the Woods. This debut novel has a double murder, one involving three 12-year-olds, Jamie, Peter, and Adam, playing in the woods on an idyllic summer day. Jamie and Peter vanish, never to be found. The tragedy will haunt the sole survivor, Adam, who is found, his shoes full of blood, unable to remember what happened to him and his playmates. Years later, Adam Ryan, now a police officer named Rob Ryan, investigates the murder of a young girl and ballet student found at an archaeological dig on the edge of the same woods.
Working with his partner, Cassie Maddox, who knows of his past, the new investigation prompts frightening flashbacks for Detective Ryan.
When he spends a night at the site and is terrified by an unseen presence, Detective Cassie Maddox comes to pick him up. This leads to a night together and a complex personal development. It becomes apparent that Detective Ryan is losing his own composure and reliability. There is an added tension. If Ryan is connected to the disappearance of the three children, he will be fired from Dublin’s elite “Murder Squad.
There are many suspects in the dead girl’s dysfunctional family, but Detective Ryan and Detective Maddox are formidable officers, despite disturbing conflicts.
The dark shadow of the first unsolved disappearance of two children informs and haunts the investigation into the second murder. I won’t reveal who murdered the young girl, but Tana French is able to use the investigation to examine conflicts between archaeologists and land developers. The two conflicted detectives discover disordered families living in neat homes divided over developers building a road that will destroy one of Ireland’s rare ancient woods. The heart of the novel, however, is the relationship between the two detectives. I can imagine the story provided excellent roles for the actors in the television series. Some loose ends are tied up in the book, but In the Woods doesn’t follow any standard easy ending.
Publishers Weekly praised the author, saying she "expertly walks the line between police procedural and psychological thriller in her debut" and that "Ryan and Maddox are empathetic and flawed heroes, whose partnership and friendship elevate the narrative beyond a gory tale of murdered children and repressed childhood trauma."
I agree. Tana French is a skillful writer with clear expressive prose and complex evocative plots that have placed her in the top ranks of mystery writers. At times, Tana French comes close to a literary novelist with her well-developed characters facing very human dilemmas. By any standard, In the Woods is a superior psychological thriller.
I haven’t read the following novels or seen the Dublin Murder Squad series, but certainly, In the Woods, however entertaining, is more than at-the-beach summertime reading.