Tana French's IN THE WOODS, winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 2008, centers on a Dublin, Ireland murder squad detective named Rob Ryan. The year of the telling is 2004. Twenty years previously, on a warm summer night, Rob (then known as Adam) was playing with two friends, Jamie Rowan and Peter Savage, in the woods near his home. The three children had done this before on many occasions. But on this particular night, Jamie and Peter would disappear without a trace, leaving Ryan to be discovered, half-hysterical and unable to remember what had taken place.
Now, in Ryan's present, a 12-year-old girl has been found, violated and murdered, in the same woods. When Ryan and Cassie Maddox, his partner and closest friend, are assigned to investigate the killing, it gives Ryan the opportunity not only to solve a high-profile murder but also to investigate what happened to him and his friends on that fateful night long ago.
A mystery? Yes. But IN THE WOODS is much more than that. For it becomes chillingly clear that, as Ryan mentally reviews his life, past and present, the events of 1984 have influenced him in ways that even he seems to be unaware of --- from his choice of friends to his vocation. It is also apparent that, as Ryan's investigation progresses more deeply into the past and present, he is slowly but inexorably unraveling --- physically, mentally and emotionally. As terrible as the disappearances of his friends were, the murder that Ryan and Maddox are investigating is equally horrid, more so for the motivation of it, which is ultimately revealed.
But there are other horrors here as well. The title, as it happens, refers not only to a crop of trees but also to Ryan's emotional state, which we find is slipping loose of its moorings if indeed it was ever tethered at all.
I would be remiss if I did not note that French, in addition to the quiet, chilling psychological study that forms the bedrock of IN THE WOODS, has crafted a first-rate mystery. It is as exquisitely told as it is wondrously plotted. Why does one read? To experience novels like this. Not to be missed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011