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In the Woods ()

Irish author Tana French won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel with In the Woods and it's easy to see why. The book is hugely ambitious, weaving together a 20 year-old mystery with a contemporary case and focusing for most of its considerable length on the relationship between the male detective who narrates the story and his female partner. If it does not wholly succeed on all its vary levels, or maybe not quite on any of them, it is still a worthwhile effort and a compelling read from an author to watch.

When a young girl is found murdered and displayed almost ritualistically at an archaeological site in Knocknaree, Ireland, Detective Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox investigate. But Rob has a secret, one that only Cassie knows: when he was a child, he and two friends went missing in these local woods. Rob emerged bloodied but silent and the latter were never found. That crime remains unsolved and Rob's memories of the events are still hazy. By rights he should be nowhere near the investigation of a crime with so many similarities, especially once interviews start touching upon people who were involved those decades ago. But he joined the Dublin police under an assumed name so his superiors aren't aware of the impropriety and Cassie keeps cutting him slack.

She has her own demons, including an undercover case that went badly wrong and the two are codependent but not lovers, at least when the book begins. Because Ms French spends so much time on their interplay, it's obviously pretty important that we buy into the relationship. I didn't. And I wonder if it wasn't a mistake to have Rob tell the tale instead of Cassie. The whole portion where they're playing best friends forever comes off as rather implausible. When Rob is telling us how Cassie painted his toe nails he seems more a teenage girl than a grown man and as things get more complicated between them he continues to come across as an arrested adolescent. Maybe the point is that he never got past being the youngster he was when he was in the woods, but it's hard to respect and like him. From what I understand the sequel is narrated by Cassie and it would not be the least buit surprising if this switch helps Ms French hit her stride.

Meanwhile, (slight spoiler alert) it's hard not to be aggravated by the way the earlier crime is teased but not solved. As if that weren't enough, Ms French adds a whole 'nother mcguffin in the form of a proposed highway project that is supposed to go through the woods and which the victim's father has been leading the opposition to. There's a fine line between the misdirection that helps a mystery to succeed and a sort of willful deception that leaves the reader feeling like his time was being wasted. Ms French at least toes the line between if she doesn't cross over.

On balance this is a book that's well worth reading, despite these few quibbles. But I was reminded of the first Margery Allingham where Albert Campion makes an appearance, Crime at Black Dudley, and he's only a bit player. It was only once the book was written that she realized he was the character she should run with. And it is hardly uncommon for first time authors to overstuff their debuts, because, after all, they might never get another chance. But Ms French has earned herself opportunity galore and with a more suitable narrator and some streamlining she's likely to do rather well with it.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Tana French Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Tana French (Written Voices)
    -INFO: In the Woods (Wikipedia)
    -INTERVIEW: Murder, she wrote: Interview: Tana French's deep crime novels (CLEA SIMON, August 5, 2008, Boston Phoenix)
    -INTERVIEW: Chatting with Tana French (Clea Simon on August 6, 2008, Crimespace)
    -PROFILE: Tana French doesn't want to be a one-sleuth writer (Regis Behe, 7/25/08, Pittsburgh TRIBUNE-REVIEW)
    -INTERVIEW: Tana French on The Likeness (James Myers, July 30, 2008, IM The Media)
    -REVIEW: of In the Woods by Tana French (Marilyn Stasio, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of In the Woods (Christina Koning, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of In the Woods (Joe Hartlaub, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of In the Woods(Maxine Clarke, EuroCrime)
    -REVIEW: of In the Woods (Jon Sobel, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of In the Woods (Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of In the Woods (Andrew Newman, The Rake)
    -REVIEW: of In the Woods (Alyson Rudd, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of In the Woods (Art Taylor, Washington Post) f
    -REVIEW: of The Likeness by Tana French (Janet Maslin, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Likeness (Barrie Hardymon, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of The Likeness ( Lottie Moggach, The London Paper)
    -REVIEW: of The Likeness (Kate Ward, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Likeness (Traci MacNamara, Rocky Mountain News)
    -REVIEW: of The Likeness (SHERRYL CONNELLY, NY Daily News)
    -REVIEW: of In the Woods and The Likeness (Susan Fox, The Post-Star)
    -REVIEW: of Faithful Place by Tana French (Laura Miller, Salon)

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