Friday, March 20, 2009

A mystery in the woods

Tana French's debut novel In the Woods is not your average genre fiction. It's a detective story yes, but it pushes the limits of the mystery/thriller very effectively, prompting several critics to call it a "literary thriller." I'm not quite sure what a literary thriller is, as I think that all novels have literary merit in them, no matter how shallow the plot and how one-dimensional the characters are. I guess it has something to do with In the Woods' combination of the police procedural, romance, personal ghosts, and the contrast between the idyllic and the modern Ireland.

Set in Ireland, In the Woods begins in an idyllic town more than two decades ago when three children -- Peter, Jamie and Adam -- go missing. After a thorough search by the local police, only Adam is found, half-naked, traumatized and unable to remember the fate of his friends Peter and Jamie who mysteriously disappear. Several years later, Adam, who now goes by the name Robert Ryan, becomes a police officer. Robert, much to his discomfort, is tasked to investigate a murder that eerily coincides with that fateful incident years ago: a young girl, Katy, has been murdered in the woods -- the same woods where he was found as a child. To complicate things further, he is assigned to work with Cassie Maddox, a lone female officer in a testosterone-filled police department.

Many of the standard elements of murder mysteries are present in In the Woods, but French still manages to put a fresh spin on them. It's almost as if French, a debut novelist at that, intentionally lures you into thinking of a usual angle and then suddenly making a complete 180-degree turn on the events. While Robert and Cassie do end up sleeping together during their investigation, it's not your usual relationship that benefits both of them. If anything, the partnership is doomed to fail, especially once Cassie learns of Robert's past and his personal affinity to their case.

French wrote her debut novel with an elegance that can put prolific pulp mystery novelists to shame. Her narrative is controlled at all points, allowing events to unfold in the right time. There are no nail-biting and action-packed sequences here, but the pacing of In the Woods is excellent, almost appearing to be effortless. You feel that French did her research and probably read hundreds of mysteries and thrillers to come up with her own unique take, one that's based on precise plotting but using a restrained voice not typical in this genre. Still, it's probably the most suspenseful novel I've read in years.

Robert's unresolved past is always looming during the investigations. Readers who expect that Robert's personal demons would be chased away once the case is solved may be disappointed. Robert's personal life does provide a vehicle for the author to give more substance to the narrative, but French uses this device somewhat peripherally. Perhaps she reserves this subplot for another novel, where we finally get to discover what really happened on that night two decades ago.

If you can find a copy of In the Woods, you have to buy it. Read it because:
  1. You'll be discovering a fresh talent in genre fiction.
  2. You're fed up with formulaic police procedurals.
  3. You feel that you have to read another thriller that's just as good as Child 44.