In the Woods is a mystery/crime novel set in Ireland. It follows Rob and Cassie, detectives trying to solve the case of a murdered 12 year old girl that may have links to a mysterious disappearance of two children decades earlier. Rob has a personal link to the older case, and he and Cassie become entangled in false leads, lies about the past, and dirty politicians.
I’m a little bit torn in reviewing this book. Typically, I like a protagonist you can root for. Or who is at least sympathetic. Adam “Rob” Ryan starts out that way. But as the novel unfolds, Rob is shown to be neither likable nor sympathetic. Where you might have had sympathy for his background and resulting troubles, the justifications he gives for his actions only serve to convict him. In one scene, where he becomes physically violent towards a suspect, he is aghast at what he almost did. But those feelings are belied by the pretty constant reactions he has throughout the novel of, “I wanted to smash the stunned, uncomprehending look off her face” and “I wanted to smack him in the mouth, anything to make him stop.”
Ryan’s saving grace is that he is interesting. He seems to have no self-awareness of his own psychological problems, or else is being very, very honest when he tells the reader that he is a liar. By the end of the book, you still aren’t sure which one you are seeing. His descent in the story is richly, beautifully told, and French doesn’t waste any time insulting our intelligence by over-explaining what’s happening. It was so interesting to read his moments where he expresses total clarity but we know, as readers, that he is really just neck-deep in denial and about to head into a really horrible place. French got severe, hidden PTSD, depression, and self-destruction spot on here.
But, there were some minor disappointments. The older mystery is not solved in this book and that was highly unsatisfying (although it may serve as a story arc for the series of novels, which I would be okay with). And I pegged the culprit pretty early on in the novel. There were enough red herrings to keep me interested and I didn’t know the “how” until it was revealed, but I felt like the who was fairly obvious. And honestly it was a little disconcerting that it was not that obvious to the detectives. And, there is one other disappointment below the rating (due to it being a massive Spoiler).
Otherwise, this is a very beautifully told story with too much depth to be “just a crime novel.”. Excited to read the next in the series! 7 mangoes
**UPDATE** I have read the next two books in the series, The Likeness and Faithful Place, and I did not like either of them as much as In the Woods. And sadly, it looks like Rob’s story is not going to be revisited. Each novel takes off from a character in the previous one and moves from there. Oh well.
My other pet peeve – I really appreciated reading a depiction of a true mixed gender friendship and was disappointed, but not particularly surprised, when Cassie and Rob slept together. But Rob’s crash and burn afterwards was such a stereotypical “male response” to having sex with a friend, I found it a little bit jarring. It didn’t seem to fit his character up to that point in the novel, so much so that I was beginning to think he was the psychopath and was behind both the disappearance of his friends and the murder of Katy, and was simply manipulating the situation to further his goals.