Haunting Book: In the Woods, by Tana French

In the Woods coverI like well-written murder mysteries and police procedurals, and In the Woods, by Irish author Tana French qualifies. A writer friend of mine told me about Tana French. I have now read her first three books, and her fourth is on my shelf waiting. In the Woods was the first in her series about the Dublin murder squad. It is an appropriate haunting and horrific book for Halloween week.

Ms. French tells us in her author’s note that the Dublin Police Department doesn’t have a murder squad, but her creation of this squad gives her an interesting group of characters that she develops through all the books in the series.

In this first book, the protagonist is detective Rob Ryan. He and his partner Cassie Maddox are investigating the murder of a 12-year-old girl, murdered in the woods near where Rob grew up. Quickly we learn that twenty years earlier Rob survived a bloody incident in those same woods as a child, although two of his neighborhood playmates disappeared and are presumed dead. Rob remembers nothing of that night, and the disappearances of his friends have never been solved. The novel progresses along two fronts—the current investigation, and Rob’s belated attempts to discover what happened to his friends so long ago.

Throughout the book, we wonder, is Rob a reliable narrator or not? The novel is written in the first person from Rob’s point of view, but he says early on, “What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this – two things: I crave truth. And I lie.”

When is he telling the truth, and when is he lying? The reader wonders, and soon the other characters wonder, too.

The setting is a very gritty side of Dublin, appropriately dark and seamy for a haunting book. The plot is an excellent murder mystery with compelling characters. But more than that, it is a book about friendship and love.

Don’t look for a happy ending, but the ending will haunt you . . . and will continue to haunt if you read Ms. French’s later novels.


Rob Ryan appears to be truly interested in solving the current murder with his partner Cassie Maddox. They are a team as complete and connected as any police partners in any story I have read. And we want them to solve the crime and continue as friends . . . and maybe as more. Because soulmates they are.

But Rob gets caught up in his unresolved past. At one point he tells us “I never left that wood.”  Now, trying to put his past together, he loses his objectivity as a detective. He makes mistakes with the witnesses and allows himself to be manipulated. Cassie tries to keep him on track and covers for him when she can, but ultimately, she cannot.

The humanity in Ms. French’s writing keeps the reader rooting for Rob, even as he makes more and more mistakes. Like watching a plane spiral to the ground, we can’t believe he won’t pull out of the spin until he crashes. And we mourn that he takes everyone else with him. The main perpetrator gets off, and his relationship with his partner Cassie disintegrates.

Despite his frailties, we care about Rob as much as he cares about solving the murders of today and yesterday. Because that is ultimately his error—he cares too much to see the truth, and it destroys him. Rob is trying to make sense of a cruel world, as do we all.

The world of Tana French’s Dublin and its suburbs is cruel. There is horror in the family tragedies that Rob and Cassie uncover and that Rob experienced as a child. There is poverty and despair and longing. Every page shows a new twist on what we thought was true. Sometimes the twist is true, and sometimes it is another red herring. The tension builds in the investigation and in Rob’s head.

The novel’s ending is unresolved. It certainly wasn’t the tidy end to a mystery we like to have. Tana French leaves some issues open to set us up for the second novel, but in large part, it is the lack of resolution that makes the book haunting.

Could the situation be reversed? we wonder.

Probably not. Because, after all, the world is not a tidy place.

The second book in this series, The Likeness, is told from Cassie’s point of view. It is a completely separate story, but we do find out more about Rob from Cassie’s perspective. Read the books in order.

What’s the best haunting mystery you have read?

P.S. To see all my posts on “haunting books,” click here.

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  1. You’re making my TBR pile higher and higher with these reviews, Theresa. 🙂 This sounds like a good one, so I stopped at the spoiler. I was always a fan of Agatha Christie, my favorite is still Murder on the Orient Express.

  2. Great book review, theresa! I will buy these for my mom for Christmas. The plot sounds a lot like Mystic River — have you read or seen that?

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