In the Woods: Chilling mystery with evocative writing

In the Woods by Tana French science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsIn the Woods by Tana French science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsIn the Woods by Tana French

When Rob Ryan was twelve, he and his two best friends went off to play in the woods and disappeared. Rob’s friends were never seen again. Only Rob came home, and without any memory of what had happened to the three of them while he was missing. Twenty years later, Rob is a detective with the Dublin Murder Squad. When he is called upon to investigate the killing of a twelve-year-old girl in the same forest, Rob is confronted again with his old trauma.

In the Woods (2007) is the first in Tana French’s DUBLIN MURDER SQUAD series. This is a mystery series, but fantasy readers will find a lot to like here. This installment and a few of the others (Broken Harbor, The Secret Place) include ambiguous touches of the supernatural. The beautiful writing is also a plus. This is probably weirdly specific, but I love evocative forest descriptions, and In the Woods has some of my favorites of all time:

The wood is all flicker and murmur and illusion. Its silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises — rustles, flurries, nameless truncated shrieks; its emptiness teems with secret life, scurrying just beyond the corner of your eye. Careful: bees zip in and out of cracks in the leaning oak; stop to turn any stone and strange larvae will wriggle irritably, while an earnest thread of ants twines up your ankle. In the ruined tower, someone’s abandoned stronghold, nettles thick as your wrist seize between the stones, and at dawn rabbits bring their kittens out from the foundations to play on ancient graves.

The mystery is a chilling one, and Rob is probably too close to the case to be working it, but he does anyway. Later in the book, he messes up his life in a spectacular and not-very-sympathetic fashion. It’s written well and makes sense with his personal issues, but it makes him less likeable and the latter half of the book less enjoyable, at least for me.In the Woods by Tana French science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

However, In the Woods successfully got me hooked on the series. Each book follows a different detective; French has said that it’s unrealistic for a single detective to have “once-in-a-lifetime” cases over and over again, so each book follows one character on his or her particular once-in-a-lifetime case while the other detectives appear as background characters. Book two, The Likeness, is a little far-fetched in its premise, but its heroine is more sympathetic than Rob, and with Faithful Place, the series really hits its stride. It’s one of my favorite books in any genre.

For FanLit readers who also enjoy mystery, I recommend In the Woods as an entry point to the DUBLIN MURDER SQUAD. And if you decide you don’t like Rob Ryan, don’t worry, you won’t have to deal with him for the whole series.

Published in 2007. The debut novel of an astonishing voice in psychological suspense. 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, Rob Ryan, 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. Richly atmospheric, stunning in its complexity, and utterly convincing and surprising to the end, In the Woods is sure to enthrall fans of Mystic River and The Lovely Bones.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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One comment

  1. Jana Nyman /

    I dearly love a well-written mystery, and you’re the most recent of the many trusted friends who have spoken highly about this book (and the overall series) — I guess I’ve run out of reasons not to read it!

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