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Mystery Review: In the Woods, Tana French (2007)

What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie. - Tana French, In the Woods

The first entry in French's (excellent) Dublin Murder Squad series, In the Woods follows Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox (and my favorite, Sam O'Neill) as they attempt to solve the murder of a twelve year old girl in the woods near a suburban housing estate. The same woods where Ryan had two friends disappear twenty years earlier. Back then, Ryan was found with bloody shoes and slashed back, clutching the bark of a tree, but with no memory of what happened. No trace of his friends had ever been found.

Understandably, Ryan finds it unnerving to be back in the woods that were the site of his childhood trauma. As he starts to unravel, Ryan puts his relationship with Maddox, the investigation, and his career on the line in his attempt to solve both the recent murder and recover his memories around the disappearance. French throws in several sub-mysteries into the mix - some political graft, a long ago rape - and a long list of characters into the mix (as mentioned, my favorite being the Detective Sam O'Neill, whose cheerful, kind, and principled approach to his work and life is a sharp contrast to Ryan's).

French is a fabulous stylist - but her writing doesn't feel overblown or show-offy. Although it's a long mystery and she doesn't rush the pace, I stayed hooked in until the end. In the Woods wasn't the hardest mystery to solve (I'm at best middling at guessing these things, and I got this one right off), and Ryan and Maddox's inability to do so for a significant period of time is almost frustrating, but for the writing and the characters. And I love a narrator who admits - as Ryan does in the quote above - that he lies. Because then, even if the main mystery isn't all that complicated to sort out, I was left with a niggling question that I think merits a re-read (or a close read when you go through the first time): when exactly was Ryan telling the truth ... and when he was lying?

A few caveats: (Spoiler!) If you like all loose ends to be neatly tied up with the baddies all punished for their behavior, you'll end up angry and annoyed (please don't throw the book against the wall, you'll just have to paint over the mark later). Ditto if you want to like your narrator. Ryan is an arrogant prat, as well as a liar, and no amount of sympathy for what happened to him as a child got me past that.

In summary: Four Sherlocks and an honorary Tey for style, will read again. (In the old style ice skating system: a 5.2 for technical and a 5.8 for artistic merit.)

Best enjoyed with several pots of Barry's Irish breakfast tea and a plate of buttered scones.

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