On Tuesday, September 23, at 2 pm, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will be discussing Tana French’s award-winning debut novel In The Woods. The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets every third Tuesday of the month on BookPeople’s third floor.
When Tana French released her debut psychological thriller In the Woods five years ago, the novel became an instant classic of the genre. It also became one of those rare books to be immediately recognized as an uncategorizable work of fiction that comfortably straddles the line between literature and genre fiction in a way that makes one question the need for categories at all.
The mystery fan has naught to fear, however – Tana French may write beautiful, literary prose, but she also understands how to craft an impeccable murder mystery. In The Woods is just the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, which now number five; her latest addition to the series, The Secret Place, was just released this month. Each novel of the series is from a different character’s perspective, and each protagonist has already been introduced in a previous novel, whether as a minor character or a major character. In this way, French has managed to create a multi-voiced drama that also allows the reader to delve deep into the psychology and potential unreliability of a fascinating host of characters.
In The Woods, like many detective novels, tells a story of two crimes. Instead of the usual trope, however – two seemingly unrelated crimes that then, rather unsurprisingly, turn out to indeed be related – French’s protagonist suspects the two crimes to be related from the start. In 1984, two children vanish from a wood in the Irish countryside, leaving a third behind with no memory of where his friends had gone. Twenty years later, Adam Ryan, the boy left behind, has joined the Dublin Murder Squad. With his amateur-profiler partner Cassie, he is called back to the place where the children had vanished so long before in order to investigate the murder of another child, found arranged on a Bronze-Age sacrificial stone on an archeological site. Ryan, rather than admitting to his emotional connection with the site of the murder, decides that he can perhaps recover his own memories while working to solve the present-day murder. Thus begins his descent into increasing instability, even madness. What other authors would turn to as solutions, French posits merely as theories. As the detectives investigate each theory, the book’s plot becomes increasingly complex (although never convoluted) and the book moves forward relentlessly to a shocking conclusion.
Tana French has an intuitive understanding of the experience of trauma and how to portray its lasting effects. She knows that suffering becomes much more apparent through understatement. As Ryan delves deeper into the memories he does possess, the extent to which he has been psychologically damaged by the events of his childhood becomes increasingly obvious. French also has an innate ability to portray both male and female characters, and the relationships between – whether romantic, working, or friendly – in a realistic and human manner. The once-in-a-lifetime friendship between Cassie and Adam is more convincing than any other buddy-cop story I have ever read, and French portrays the dysfunctional relationships in the story just as acutely.
Tana French’s transformation into one of the world’s most psychologically astute detective novelists is almost as mysterious as her books. She has built a successful career as an actress, and perhaps this fact is a key to her incredible ability to analyze motive and to place herself in the shoes of others. After finishing In the Woods, I stayed up half the night thinking about it. Given how much thought French must have put into the novel, I felt it was only fair.