In The Spotlight: Tana French’s In the Woods

>In The Spotlight: Carl Hiaasen's Skinny DipHello, All,

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


Filed under In The Woods, Tana French

44 responses to “In The Spotlight: Tana French’s In the Woods

  1. tracybham

    I did read it several years ago and I did like the book a lot. Don’t know why I haven’t ready more of the series, especially since I bought a couple of them.

    • I know how that is, Tracy. There are so many series I haven’t followed up with, and a lot of it is a matter of making the time to catch up. I wish every day had 50 reading hours in it…

  2. Tim

    Here is the link to my review at BookLoons:
    I can see that I concerned about the slow development, but otherwise I must have enjoyed the novel; I have no recollection separate from having written the review. Such is life when the memory implodes.

    • Thanks, Tim, for sharing your review. You’re right that the story doesn’t quite plunge into the present-day investigation at first. Still, I’m glad you enjoyed the book when you read it.

  3. As you know Margot, I love this book, love this series, love this author. I find her books unputdownable. I am rationing them out, trying not to read them all too quickly! There are elements of this book that are unresolved: I admire the way French did that, though I would have liked more info. But she can do no wrong for me. I hope she is going to write dozens of books.

    • You’re right, Moira. There are some elements in the story aren’t completely resolved, although we do learn Katy Devlin’s story. French doesn’t set it up like a ‘cliffhanger,’ though, and I respect that. So I understand what you mean about the way she handles those ‘loose ends.’ I’ll be very interested to see what happens with the Dublin Murder Squad as time goes by.

  4. Kay

    I also love Tana French’s books. Read this one several years ago and have read all but the lastest, THE TRESPASSER. I know that many had mixed feelings about this one. I liked it a lot. My favorite though, FAITHFUL PLACE. I like how she changes the viewpoint on each book to another character, an important one from a previous book. It’s been fun trying to figure out who will tell the next story. Have you read any of her other books other than this one? Just curious. I, too, hope French continues writing for a long, long time.

    • I like those changing points of view, too, Kay. I think it adds a richness to the series, and gives French the chance to experiment with different characters and points of view. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed this series so very much. I’ll admit, I’m not all the way up to The Trespasser, but it’s been fascinating to see how the series has developed over time.

  5. Just started the Trespasser myself and enjoying it a lot so far, very strong prose and amazing turns of phrase. Its another police procedural, and its interesting how that at times, particularly with describing crime scenes, it has a pockets of golden age feelings about it. This is the only French I have read, did you find this with In The Woods? Or was it more of a thriller?

    • You know, you have a point TRIW, about the sort of Golden Age hint here and there. Certainly In The Woods isn’t a thriller; it’s a police procedural. So in that sense it’s similar to The Trespasser. I’m glad you’re enjoying The Trespasser; I’ve not quite got there myself, but am looking forward to it.

  6. Great spotlight, Margot, and for once I’ve read it so my TBR is safe. I had some criticisms of it – primarily the length and a tendency towards being overly lyrical in places, but otherwise I thought it was an excellent debut. The next one in the series is languishing on my TBR…

    • Curses! Foiled again, FictionFan! I’ll get your TBR another day *evil cackle*! 😉 – You do have a point that In the Woods is a little long, and there are parts to it that stray more towards the literary/even lyrical than police procedural. I’m glad you enjoyed it, though. I wonder what you’ll think of The Likeness. It’s not quite like the first, although there are a lot of similarities. I’ll be keen to know your view once you get to it…

  7. Love the spotlight, Margot. I’ve read a few books by Tana French and have enjoyed them. I haven’t read this one, but I’m adding it to my TBR list.

  8. Margot, the Dublin Murder Squad series sounds really good. This book in particular has a lot of plot elements and a certain intensity, as evident to me from your fine review. The feedback from fellow commentators is encouraging. But can I afford to add yet another author to my TBR? Frankly, no, but I will keep this series in mind.

    • I know what you mean about the TBR, Prashant! I don’t think I”ll ever get through mine. If you do every get to the point where you have time to try this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it. And thanks for the kind words.

  9. I’ve read most of her books and they all suffer the same trait of being too long. But her writing is exquisite and her knowledge of Dublin and the police is amazing. So I am willing to read longer than I usually do with French.

    • I agree with you, Patti. French is a very, very skilled writer, and she’s definitely ‘done her homework.’ I think it’s interesting that some authors have that skill of drawing the reader in, so that one reads longer than one would with other authors. I ought to do a blog post on that some time.

  10. This sounds really interesting. I’ve read a couple of Tana French books and really enjoyed them so will definitely look out for this one.

  11. A new series to me and I’m hooked. The body found at an archaeological dig is just an added plus. I’m adding it to my list.

    • The archaeology angle is really interesting, Mysm2000. I can say without spoiling the story that it isn’t really a story about the science of archaeology (e.g. like Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series). But it’s there, and it’s an interesting context. If you do read this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  12. Ooh you’ve chosen one of my favourite series here Margot – I particularly love the ever changing ‘Dublin Squad’ as it really does keep each book feel unique while retaining a link between them as the series progresses.

    • I know just exactly what you mean, Cleo! There’s something distinctive about each book. And yet, as you say, they are linked. And French really does write very well. It’ll be interesting to see where she takes the squad next…

  13. Keishon

    I enjoyed the story. Read it while I was out in the country, reading it with no distractions. I couldn’t put the book down. I liked how the author kept it realistic meaning that not all crimes can be solved. French is such an excellent writer and her stories are almost always engaging. I’ve ran into issues with her latest works. but I haven’t read her release in 2016. For me, it’s just a matter of what she wants to write about but she’s an excellent writer overall.

    • French really does have a lot of writing talent, Keishon, no doubt about it. And I think reading this novel out in the country like that probably give you a great opportunity to really dive in. And it’s the sort of story where you really want to get drawn into the atmosphere, in my opinion.

  14. kathy d

    I agree with Moira from Clothes in Books. I find Tana French’s books unputdownable. I inhale them. However, I have preferences. In the Woods started me on the path to read all of her books and I have. My favorites are In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place. But stellar among all of them is The Trespasser, in my opinion.
    The dialogue just crackles. It is brilliant and exciting. When I’d see how Antoinette Conway, the main protagonist, responds to another character in dialogue, sometimes I’d just have to stop and savor her remarks. Or, I’d think, how did this writer precisely hit the nail on the head so many times?
    So, this became my favorite of her books.
    I don’t know where French can go now. She won the Irish Crime Fiction prize last year. If she can even match this book, it would be an amazing feat.

    • I’m very glad you enjoy Tana French’s work as much as you do, Kathy. She certainly does have an awful lot of talent – no doubt about that. It’s interesting you’d mention your preferences. I think that’s what happens, even with an author whose works one really loves – there are still preferences. You’re right, too, that French does extremely effective dialogue. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

  15. kathy d

    My suggestion for a good weekend: Get coffee, wine, chocolate almonds, curl up in a good chair and read The Trespasser. You will be glad you did.

  16. I read this when it came out, a Father’s Day gift, and enjoyed it–especially the writing. But I didn’t know it was part of a series. Now I’ll have to look for the others.

  17. Love, love, love Tana French. I’ve read the first 3 in the series & find that she just keeps getting better with each book…….not easy when every prior novel was excellent.
    As an earlier reader/blogger said, i also am pacing myself 😃
    I just love literary mysteries (few & far between), her lyrical prose is a joy to read. So glad that you enjoyed this one Margot!

  18. I’m not sure completely how I feel about “trigger warnings,” but I think mentioning that this book has violence against children is a good idea. Some readers will absolutely hate a book if it has violence against kids (and animals, I’ve noticed), so you’re really helping your readers make good money and/or time investments. One thing I commented on another blog just a few minutes ago: do you ever grow tired of the story of the detective who has a history of his/her own, such as a family member was murdered or he/she was a victim? My first thought was, “Well, of course that person became a detective! He/she probably feels a closeness to the profession that helped when he/she was a victim.” But then my next thought is how that person, once a victim and now a detective, is always questioned: will the past get in the way? Is the detective too biased for a case? Wouldn’t a horrifying past affect, like, all of the detective’s murder cases?? Basically, the detective-once-a-victim trope is one that confuses me.

    • Thanks, GtL. I always try to let readers know about things such as harm to children (or animals), extreme violence, and so on. To me, it’s part of objectively discussing a book. I want readers to have information (other than, of course, plot spoilers! 😉 ) to help them decide, as you say, whether to invest time, possibly money, and energy into reading a given book.

      You also raise a fascinating point about the detective with a history. I think that can be done very well; I’ve read several novels and series where, as you say, we see a clear connection between the sleuth’s background and her or his choice to be a detective. Yet, as you say, in real life, that would impact whether a detective would work a case. I saw that dilemma resolved quite effectively in Jane Woodham’s Twister (among others). The sleuth’s daughter went missing nine years before the case discussed in the novel. That case involves a missing girl who turns up dead. And Woodham makes it clear that, ordinarily, that police detective would not have worked that case. But a ‘flu epidemic has decimated the ranks of available investigators, so there’s no real choice. That, to me, is credible. But such situations do, I think, have to be handled carefully.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s