Written by: Tana French
#1/5 in the Dublin Murder Squad series
Rating: 5/5 stars
Summary: As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children. He is gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a 12-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox (his partner and closest friend) find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.
“Human beings, as I know better than most, can get used to anything. Over time, even the unthinkable gradually wears a little niche for itself in your mind and becomes just something that happened.”
Review: If there’s one type of book I had to read for the rest of my life, it would be crime mysteries. There is something about a good whodunnit that just gets to me. Whether it be as simple and light as a Stephanie Plum novel (which, to be honest, is one of my favorite series) or as dark and tangled as Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, I love the sense of resolution you feel at the end when you figure out who the murderer/thief/criminal/etc. is.
Disclaimer: This is not that type of book.
It’s not simple, or easy, and definitely not light. The mysteries are not fully resolved, and if you want to read a book where everyone wins and there’s a group hug at the end, turn back now. But if you want something that will make you physically unable to put it down, that will make you second guess each character and your own thoughts, that will make you enter philosophical conversations with strangers on the bus reading the book (which I did, obviously), then this is the book for you.
Because oh. My. Lord.
It takes A LOT for me to rate something five stars. I repeat: A LOT. And this book has it all – the devolution of one protagonist and the rising of another, not one but two immensely compelling mysteries that connect without encroaching on one another, such detailed writing that I imagined myself standing beside the characters, and a lot of public debate over what the ending actually was. Its complexity and its beauty and its darkness have allowed it to invade my list of top books.
First off, Tana French is an incredible writer, and has joined the ranks in my top 20 favorite authors after only a single book. I’m pretty sure she could write a book on how to tie your shoes and still make it thrilling. Her characterization of the Irish detectives and denizens versus the protagonist, Rob Ryan (who is Irish by birth but British by claimed identity), is slight but noticeable enough to draw a definitive line between the characters that most authors overlook. Every time she introduced a new scene, I found myself wanting to shut my eyes and just focus on the image in my head for a few minutes, because the picture she had created with her words was so vivid. Then, there’s the plot itself, which revolves around the murder of a 12-year-old ballet protege in Knocknaree, a Dublin suburb and previous home to our main protagonist, which takes so many twists and turns to end at what can honestly be seen as a relatively mundane destination, but with a thrilling path leading it. There is really never a dull moment in this book, for even the office scenes hold action or at least some source of entertainment.
As for the characters, they were extraordinarily depicted. Never have I loved/hated a character so much as Rob/Adam Ryan. Born and raised in Knocknaree (the same city as our crime scene), Adam Ryan disappeared one day with two of his childhood friends, and when he returned, he was alone, without his memories, and wearing shoes filled with blood and a shirt with a claw mark through it. After the two other children still don’t return, Adam is shipped off to England, where he adopts what I like to call his “alternate persona” as Rob, before returning to Dublin several years later and becoming a detective on the Murder Squad. His origin story wins him my sympathy vote right out of the gate, as does his easy charm and obvious wit, although the name change and the fact that he allows everyone to assume he’s British kind of causes an eyebrow quirk.
As the story and their investigation continues, Rob is forced to remember the most scarring and tragic years of his life in both the event itself and the years following it. These flashbacks make Rob, for lack of a better word, crazy, and the reader is right there with him as he begins to question everything he’s ever known about that day in the woods and himself. Also there beside him is Cassie Maddox, his partner in crime… or, in stopping it, more appropriately. At first, I was a little wary about her – she seemed to be the cliched quirky/dorky but still beautiful girl that a lot of stories have in an attempt to be ironic, but she really, simply is that way, and it’s a trait you grow to appreciate in Cassie, especially as an opposite to Rob. Toward the end of the investigation, she proves being worth more than Rob, which earns a cheer from me and the main role in Dublin Murder Squad #2 from French. But even the other characters – the murderer, the victim, Rob’s lost childhood friends, the rest of the Dublin PD on the case, and even the random archaeological team working at the crime scene – are memorable and visible through French’s writing.
And as much as you expect this to be a story of Rob Ryan and his struggles, it ends up being about something much darker: psychopaths. The murderer turns out to be a textbook psychopath – meticulous, arrogant, manipulative – and so well characterized that their words cause your hair to stand on end. But it goes beyond just the murderer. Cassie, with her dark past, shares stories of the psychopaths she had encountered on her previous job and in her own life. As Rob is forced to look back at Knocknaree, he begins to look at suspects again in search of a psychopath. And then, of course, there is the suggestion that Rob himself might be a psychopath, suggested by several things, but most poignantly stated by a quote from him to the reader after the investigation is over and they’re clearing up the incident room. I physically gasped when I read this sentence, then had to reconsider everything I ever knew, especially about In the Woods and Rob Ryan’s entire life story with the last three words.
“I told you everything I saw, as I saw it at the time. And if that was in itself deceptive, remember, I told you that, too: I warned you, right from the beginning, that I lie.”
So, the question is… what and who can we trust in this story? Read this book for yourself and decide.
P.S. If you HAVE read the book and want to talk about the ending, please comment here and let me know! I am always interested to hear other peoples’ takes.