Tana French’s debut novel mixes mystery with action and crime. In the Woods, properly titled, takes place in the woods of the town of Knocknaree, Ireland. In the novel’s prologue we are taken to the very scene the events as they happened, with the disappearance of two children and one left behind.
Adam “Rob” Ryan was found alone in the heart of the woods while his two friends had gone missing. Trauma strikes immediately as Rob had been found gripping a tree trunk to death, and even stranger as his shoes were stained and filled with blood—with no injuries to his feet—and whatever he had witnessed he had absolutely no memory of.
Rob’s lack of memory continues with him as the novel progresses to the present, where he works in the Murder squad on Dublin’s police force. Rob meets his partner Cassie as the two are assigned to a new case—and this case has some familiarity to Rob. In the very town Rob grew up in, in the very woods he lost his friends in, comes another child who met an ill fate and was found dead on a rock. Rob is seeing a repeat in history and is faced with the horrifying thought of having to revisit his own past, but the real question is, are the two cases connected? Would solving this case bring Rob any closer to solving his own?
The answer, which might be surprising, is no.
My initial concept of In The Woods was a supernatural and dark, mysterious antagonist. Is there something in the woods that took the kids from the past that is still there and is responsible for the crime in the present? This might be a common and appealing concept to readers as they sort out the clues and try to unravel the mystery for themselves.
While Rob and Cassie are on the current case, Rob has slight anxiety about visiting his own past and the very placed he experienced trauma—as they explore every possibility of who committed the murder and why. Throughout this time Rob and Cassie develop a tight friendship and spend a lot of time together on the case, interviewing locals and gathering information about the girl and her family. They find out she was the daughter of a man who was involved with a project to tear down the woods and build a highway. Various locals protesting this project were determined to bring him down anyway they could.
French gives us everything here. There are obvious factors to what could have happened, and the reader believes them all the way through, but French ends up turning everything around to make everything you thought to just be a bunch of red herrings. The little girl was not murdered by a steamed local or a supernatural being that dwells in the woods, but her own psychopathic sister jealous of the attention she got as a ballet dancer, who had her murdered through an insecure site worker.
Okay, so there’s no Blair Witch in this one. That mystery is solved with explanations of exactly what happened. But that very first mystery is still in question. With Cassie’s help, Rob decides the best thing for him to do is to go back to the woods on his own in hopes in the ultimate flashback. He goes, with a sleeping bag and thermos of coffee and allows the setting to do the thinking for him. He and his friends Jamie and Peter ran away to the woods after Jamie refused to go to Boarding school and wanted to run away with her friends. Rob and Peter tagged along and they ran along happily deeper and deeper in the woods, and the last detail Rob remembered was his shoelaces coming undone as he tagged after them, and nothing after that.
In the case of the past, what we are facing with this crime novel is that of the unsolved mystery: Weird facts and findings and two children who just happened to disappear without a trace. What could have happened to make Rob so traumatized that he had absolutely no recollections of, that caused him to block it from his mind forever? The way he was found only adds to it. How were his shoes filled with blood where he had no injuries to his feet? At various points the kids heard whooping noises, like that of birds, but never found anything.
With the most important plot of the book not uncovered, the readers are forced to come up with their own conclusions. What really happened?
Is there really a Blair Witch creature that made off with his friends? Or if they are still alive, why didn’t they return? And if they were dead, why weren’t their bodies found?
The following is just my idea:
The kids were running and a giant bird creature (as they heard whooping noises like that of wings) came down and attacked the first two with Rob behind. The bird is slashing at them and trying to eat them as they struggle to get away. Rob, frantic, thinks of the only thing he could and takes his untied shoes and throws them at the bird, which get bloodier as the bird is attacking his friends. The bird takes off with the bodies and leaves Rob with his bloody shoes and gripping a tree to try to prevent being taken away himself. This explains the shoes and the lack of bodies, and satisfies the creature theory.
That is one possibility, but a possibility is all it is, and the ending still leaves the reader with a loose end that has not been tied up. Meeting an unsolved mystery made me feel very frustrated, but I still very much enjoyed the novel because it made me think. Perhaps the use of the ambiguous ending is to give the reader the sense of reality in that not all cases are solved. Ambiguous endings also leave the story open as a possibility to be re-visited, or just to be left up to the reader’s own interpretation and imagination.
Is this really French’s intention or is there a possibility of this being revisited in another book? The next two novels in her Dublin murder squad cover other characters and make little mention of the first, so like the ending to In The Woods, this is unknown, and for now whatever happens in the woods, stays In The Woods.