I have had this novel on my shelf for a while, tried reading it a couple of times, but found myself unable to get into it and set it aside after reading 10 or 20 pages each time. But recently I read Tana French’s The Likeness in a  French translation (Comme deux gouttes d’eau, in Parlons Bouquins) and really liked it, it reminded me both of Donna Tartt’s Secret History and Ruth Rendell’s A Fatal Inversion, two of the best mysteries I have ever read. So I finally decided to give another try to In the Woods, and this time finished it…

I did not like In the Woods as much as The Likeness, and I waited some days before writing the review. I mention this because my opinion of it changed a bit in the meanwhile: the more I thought about  it, the more details came back to me and the more the general impression of the novel improved…

The narrator of In the Woods, Rob Ryan, is a detective in the Dublin police. What nobody knows, except his partner and best friend Cassie Maddox, is that he was part of a local tragedy, a mystery never solved, that happened years ago. When he was twelve, he and his two best friends went missing in the woods. The day after he was found by a tree, wearing his shoes soaked in blood. He was deeply traumatized and to the present day, has been unable to remember what happened in the woods. He was then sent to England to study, and changed his first name from Adam to Rob, ensuring that nobody connects him with the tragedy before coming back to Dublin and joining the police.

On the site of the old tragedy, a young local girl, Katy Devlin, is found dead. She was a local star as she was a gifted dancer about to join a famous ballet school in London. Ron and Cassie immediately sense something amiss in the Devlin family, without being able to say exactly what…

When I read this novel, I had read reviews and knew that there was no closure to the old tragedy, so I knew what to expect and tried to get focused on the Katy Devlin case. The trouble is that it is impossible not to wonder what happened in the woods, and also that the culprit in the Devlin case is not so hard to figure out (mostly after reading The Likeness, where a single little sentence was enough to give me a hint, but even without that, I suppose).

But, what is deeply interesting in In the Woods, is the choice of Rob as a narrator, which both compensates and explains the two “weak points” of the novel: by presenting the facts from Rob’s point of view, Tana French has made some choices, and we, as readers, have to accept: that because of his personality, Rob will be blind to some things that are more obvious to us (the culprit in the Devlin’s case), and that Rob is too deeply traumatized to ever accept to face what happened in the woods. I really liked how Tana French exploited the theme of the woods as something traditionally associated with the unconscious, the wilderness, the darkest side of man: this reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Young Goodman Brown. I really like an unreliable narrator, unreliable narrators generally ensure that the novel is more challenging, and therefore more interesting…

However, as an unreasonable and demanding reader, I still want to know what happened in the woods (though I have some, maybe misguided, suspicions…). I understand that Tana French could not unveil this through Rob, but hopefully in a future book, with Rob as a character and another narrator taking charge, this will maybe happen? What is really original in French’s mysteries is that with each book there is a different narrator, and the previous narrator slips into the background. Hence, in The Likeness, Rob is mentioned a couple of times, Cassie even phones him once (without talking to him), but he is otherwise absent while Cassie takes the center stage. Apparently, in the next novel, Faithful Place, the story focuses on Cassie’s former boss Frank, from when she was working undercover, and who has been introduced in The Likeness. Faithful Place is about Frank Mackey’s past: I am looking forward to reading it. I am glad to have discovered yet another writer from the new generation of mystery writers. My old winning podium of mystery writers (Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Elizabeth George), is slowly replaced by a new one: Susan Hill, Sophie Hannah and Tana French…

Rating: 4/5