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Book review: <i>In The Woods</i> by Tana French

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the cover of the book

The body of a child is found on an archeological dig. Who steals a childhood, and why? The Dublin murder squad have to pool every resource, dig into their pasts, and try not to implode.

The story

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In 1984, two children go missing in the woods at Knocknaree, Rob Adams, the third child and survivor, has joined the Dublin Murder Squad with a different name and no connection to his childhood. His partner, Cassie Maddox, has a flair for psychology and a deep empathy for victims. They are best friends, share everything, and there's nothing they can't solve.

They land a case; the murder of a child, found in an archeological site dug in the same Knocknaree woods that Rob lost his friends over twenty years ago. Cassie, who knows his past, has qualms about Rob taking the case, but agrees to see him through it. As Rob has no memory of the day his friends disappeared, he's secretly hoping he can resolve two cases at once. The two friends throw themselves into a most disturbing crime scene.

The case takes a toll on both of them. There are the usual suspects but nobody jumps out, everybody has alibis, and there doesn't seem to be a tangible motive. Cassie and Rob enlist their young colleague Sam, and the three of them embark on a trying, thankless, and disturbing investigation.

The case begins to take a terrible toll on Rob. Can he and his survive the heart-wrenching similarities of this case with his own, and will either case ever be solved?

The style

I'm French's latest fan. I want to say “French has done it again”, but this was, in fact, French's first novel, and I started with her most recent, The Secret Place. What has impressed me most about In The Woods is the fact that it IS her first novel, and she wrote it young, and it's such a beautiful, complex, and well written story. It's written entirely in the first person, from the point of view of Rob, and this perspective is very deliberate because we can only see what Rob sees, and his character admits to having blind spots in several instances. Rob occasionally speaks directly to the reader, he's a conscious narrator, which increases the reader's commitment to the storyline. He's a great observer of human nature and honest about his own flaws, but as a protagonist who's purposefully narrating to an audience there's a sense that he may well be leaving pieces of the story out which adds to the mysterious feel of the story.

French has a real flair for creating complex characters. Each of the children she writes are so real; complex, innocent and cruel at the same time, and certainly never stereotypes. Cassie and Sam are also gloriously characterised through the eyes of Rob, is feelings towards them enhancing their complex humanity. Rob himself was one of the least likeable characters, which was a deliberate and interesting plot device. The storyline itself was good, solid, mysterious, and a little beyond standard crime fiction because it was way better written and also involved such great character studies and observations.

Furthermore, I particularly enjoy French's attachment to Ireland. Her sense of place is impeccable, compelling, and altogether glorious. The reader is transplanted into a world French is clearly connected to, and contributes to a great reading experience. Once again, I found myself putting off everything I had to do and devouring this book in just under forty-eight hours.

Just a note, there are a LOT of terrible reviews on Amazon of this book, particularly pertaining to the end. I thought the ending was fitting and realistic, and all those whingers on Amazon need to stick to boring old American police procedurals and Law and Order SVU.

Who is this book for?

Read it on holiday. DON'T read it if you have important other stuff to do, because you WON'T DO THE OTHER STUFF. It's un-put-downable. Read it if you like your Crime unique and less pulpy and American than the standard airport fare offered.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Hey guess what? Tana French has written other stuff! So don't just sit there, get it on your kindle!

In short

Title: In The Woods
Author: Tana French
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0143113492
Year published: 2008
Pages: 464
Genre(s): Crime fiction
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