It should come as no surprise that the people who are tasked with finding out the truth get lied to constantly. What came as a surprise, as I read Tana French’s masterly In the Woods, was how much a detective might struggle with discerning truth from lies. Throughout the novel, Dublin Murder squad detective Robert Ryan is lied to by witnesses, suspects, and his own memory. It’s fascinating to spend time in his head as he tries to work out what happened to a small girl found dead at an archaeological dig and what happened to his friends twenty years ago.
Knocknaree, near Dublin, has been a no-go area for Ryan ever since his two friends disappeared and he was found clinging to a tree with blood in his shoes. He and his partner, Cassie Maddox, have the sheer bad luck of landing the case because they weren’t busy with anything else when Katy Devlin’s body is found on an altar stone at an archaeological dig near the housing estate. Just being back in the little development gives him the terrors and sets his judgment askew.
Because we’re riding along in Ryan’s head for a month, we are treated to the full tension and tedium of a murder investigation. Ryan and Maddox chase down dozens of leads, some more plausible than others. We are so close to the action that it’s just as hard for us readers to tell what piece of information is actually relevant to what happened and what is just more of the useless data churned up with detectives come in to shine bright lights into every dark corner. As if this wasn’t enough to deal with it, Ryan is wracking his brains to try and recover lost memories about what happened in the woods when he was twelve.
Ryan is a strangely self-reflective detective. Most of the ones I’ve encountered in fiction are oblivious to their personal failings. He’s eloquent on the workings and failings of his brain. That brain often seems like an adversary, as weird as that is. He knows that his past trauma is leading him to make mistakes but he seems helpless to stop himself from yelling at witnesses or devoting time to leads that don’t pan out. We know he’s going to crash and burn if he keeps it up, but if he doesn’t, we might never find out what happened twenty years ago and if it has anything to do with what happened to little Katy Devlin.
Once the twists start, however, the fog that surrounds Katy’s murder starts to lift. I love it when mysteries manage to both confound me but, once the solution is revealed, make me look back and see how inevitable it all was. In the Woods did both for me, as well as give me a well-spoken, emotionally hapless narrator to follow through the entire investigation. This book is one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a while.