Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Tana French has gotten international acclaim for her series featuring the Dublin Murder Squad. It’s about time this feature included one of her novels, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on In the Woods, the first in this series.
The Garda Síochána’s Murder Squad is called in when the body of twelve-year-old Katy Devlin is found at the site of an archaeological dig near the small town of Knocknaree, in County Dublin. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox take the case and begin the investigation.
For Ryan, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up in the same town. It’s a homecoming in other, more chilling ways, too. Twenty-two years before Katy’s murder, Ryan himself was one of three local children who went into the nearby woods to play one evening. Only Ryan was found, injured, but alive, and he has no memory of what happened to the two other children who were with him. Despite a massive search, no trace of the other two children has ever been found, and Ryan’s never been able to be much help.
Maddox, who’s one of the few people who know about her partner’s past, wonders whether Ryan can be objective about the Katy Devlin case, but he insists he can do the job. So, the two get busy on the present-day investigation.
As you can imagine, Maddox and Ryan start with the Devlin family. Immediately they sense that there is something wrong with this family. On the surface, it seems like a normal (if there is such a thing) middle-class family, but several hints suggest something else. Still, there is nothing tangible to connect any member of the family with Katy’s death.
Besides, there are other possibilities. For instance, there is a local conflict over a motorway that’s planned for the area. The road will go right over the archaeological site, and there’s a lot of objection to its placement. In fact, Jonathan Devlin is the chair of the Move the Motorway campaign. He’s gotten his share of threatening telephone calls, and it’s possible that someone might have targeted Katy because of the campaign.
There’s also the members of the dig crew. Katy had been seen at the dig site, and two of the people who work it actually reported her body. So, the Murder Squad has to consider the crew, as well.
And then there’s the fact that there are very few murders in that area. There are even fewer murders of children. So, there’s the chance that the older disappearances – the ones that involved Rob Ryan – are related to Katy’s murder. This possibility has to be explored, too, and that means Ryan has to face his own past. He can’t remember much about what happened, so he tries to help himself to access those memories. Little by little, we find out what really happened to Katy. And the truth turns out to be more complex than Maddox or Ryan had imagined.
This is a police procedural, and that context is an important element in the novel. Readers follow along as Maddox, Ryan and colleague Sam O’Neill make sense of evidence, interview witnesses, and so on. We also see just how intense such an investigation is. Maddox and Ryan are already friends (‘though not lovers, as the gossip sometimes suggests). During this investigation, they and O’Neill spend days and nights together, going over the case, reading reports, and the like. Although it’s cliché, you might say they live and breathe the case, and it draws them into a sort of 24-hour relationship. There’s a lot of camaraderie between Maddox and Ryan, and some funny ‘inside jokes’ that they share.
It’s also worth noting that, as the Murder Squad series continues, the composition of the squad changes. There are personnel shifts, just as there are in real-life police squads. In that sense, the depiction of the squad over time is authentic.
Another element in the novel is the setting for most of it. The story takes place in modern small-town Ireland. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone has an opinion on the Devlin case. There are still people living there who remember the older case, too. As the team investigates, readers get a look at what life is like in a small Irish town.
The story is told from Ryan’s point of view (first person, past tense). So, we also get to know his character, as well as his perspective on Cassie Maddox. He’s been profoundly impacted by what happened to him as a child, although he doesn’t remember much. And yet, he’s not debilitated by it. Coming back to Knocknaree doesn’t send him into emotional paralysis, but it’s obvious that he feels both a connection to, and a real distance from, the place and its people. It’s not spoiling the story, either, to say that we learn about the events and the people involved from Ryan. And that’s only one perspective on everything.
This is a story about two cases involving children. Readers who dislike stories in which children are harmed, or at risk, will want to know this. That said, though, there aren’t drawn-out ‘on stage’ scenes of terrible violence.
This isn’t a story with what you’d call a happy ending. Knowing what really happened to Katy Devlin certainly doesn’t bring her back. And the truth doesn’t bring peace and healing to the community. Readers who prefer light, cosy mysteries will notice this. Still, we do learn Katy’s story, so there is closure in that sense.
In The Woods is the story of the devastation that a tragedy can bring to a family, and the effects, even years later, of trauma. It introduces a smart, dedicated group of police investigators, and takes place in a distinctive context. But what’s your view? Have you read In the Woods? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 13 February/Tuesday, 14 February – The Hidden Man – Robin Blake
Monday, 20 February/Tuesday, 21 February – China Lake – Meg Gardiner
Monday, 27 February/Tuesday, 28 February – River of Darkness – Rennie Airth