Ever since I finished this book a couple of years ago, I’ve been waiting to re-read it. Yes, Tana French is that good. So this time around I tried to read more critically, to understand just what it was that made me so enthusiastic. First comes the narrative voice. This is one of those novels (like Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader) that conspicuously features a charismatic, unstable narrator. Rob Ryan tells you right from the get-go that he cannot be trusted. But he’s so witty, so clever, such a romantic (in the sense of heightening the emotions provoked by his experiences)… you know he’s trouble, but you listen anyway.
Ryan is a detective in the Murder unit of the Dublin police force. What few people know is that as a child he was involved in a famous case in which his two best friends vanished forever from the woods behind his house. So when a child is killed in the same woods, Rob should not work the case. Oh, well.
There is a mystery, a perfectly compelling one, but it is outshone by Rob’s narration. One of French’s important themes is the power and unreliability of memory — throughout the police case Rob is tantalized and tormented by flickers of reminiscence. “Most people,” he says, “have no reason to know how memory can turn rogue and feral, becoming a force of its own and one to be reckoned with. Losing a chunk of your memory is a tricky thing, a deep-sea quake triggering shifts and upheavals…”
And if you have no memory, or if your memory omits a chunk of your past, what does that do to your character? French sows In the Woods with clues about Rob Ryan’s neediness and instability, but he is the narrator. So it’s easy to lose track of how troubled he is, until he starts making very serious mistakes.
Rob’s partner in the police force is Cassie Maddox, a small sprite of a woman whom Ryan adores. Poignantly, he often refers to her in the present tense, as if their relationship were ongoing. There’s a kind of train-wreck fascination to the unraveling of the plot, and you know pretty early on that Rob’s heading for disaster and taking his partnership with Cassie down with him. It just occurs to me that part of the reason this relationship is so compelling is the way Rob notices every detail about Cassie. He makes the point somewhere that detectives are, by definition, observant. Wouldn’t we all like, at some point, to have an intelligent observant person turn their full attention on us? Isn’t that part of the appeal of these books, to imagine yourself as the one being examined and understood? Yet there’s a dark charm, too, in watching Rob fall apart. Which is just as well, because this is another mystery in which the author subverts many of the expectations of crime fiction. The comfort we’re left with not that of a solved crime and restored equilibrium. It’s closer to schadenfreude: at least I’m not as crazy as the fictional Rob Ryan.