Years ago, one of my father’s clients -- a man from the Emerald Isle named Cosgrove -- dropped by our place and, during the evening, got an insatiable hankering for the hard stuff. So my mother (who was essentially a teetotaler) found a bottle of small-batch scotch someone had given her as a gift and poured him four fingers’ worth. My father began to rib him about his prodigious thirst, but Cosgrove looked at him over his highball with deadly seriousness and said, “Lee, if you were Irish, you’d drink too.”
Detective Robert Ryan, the protagonist of Tana French’s In the Woods, has a few reasons to drink in addition to sharing Cosgrove’s nationality. He’s on the Irish police force’s murder squad, which means he’s hip-deep in grisly murders most of the time. A stabbed convenience store clerk. A homeless man beaten to a pulp. And now a pubescent girl named Katy Devlin found near the Knocknaree woods with her skull caved in. But not only is Ryan an investigator of crimes, he’s a victim of one. Twenty years ago, he and two friends disappeared into the very same forest. Only he came out, dazed and amnesiac, his shoes filled with blood. Has he found a key to his past, or will he crumble beneath the weight of hidden memories?
In the Woods is a first novel, and as such suffers from some flaws. French has a tendency to embed sentences within sentences, piling on em dashes and parentheses, colons and semicolons, until your head's spinning. But after you get a grip on the overgrown style, you have to deal with the genre, which wavers between literary and mystery, only firmly clicking into procedural mode in the book’s second half. And then there’s the problem of Ryan himself, who is more than a little unlikable. He falls into a myopic funk seemingly at every other thought of Knocknaree, ignores crucial clues, bullies witnesses, betrays his partner’s trust, downs stultifying amounts of grog and generally makes a mess of the case. “I am intensely aware, by the way,” he narrates in the closing pages, “that this story does not show me in a particularly flattering light.”
For all these niggles, though, French succeeds where more-experienced authors fail. Why? She keeps you reading. Indeed, she destroyed my sleep schedule for a week and had me pacing the hallway one Sunday afternoon, book in hand, until my wife began to fear for my mental wellbeing. In the Woods’ action is as tense as a tightrope, and for her skill in keeping me moving to the next chapter, I’ll buy French a pint if she ever shows up in my neck of the woods. Heck, let’s make it two.