What is it about murder these days?
Detectives are like early Greeks inventing constellations—gathering limited, scattered facts, like stars, together in coherent pattern using only intuition and a bit of imagination. The collection of stars mean nothing if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but the trained eye picks out the shape and draws in the gaps.
It’s an addictive puzzle I’ve only recently discovered. I believe I can trace this back to the holidays and my binge-watching of The Keepers on Netflix. I need to know what happened. I still think about it.
But what I watch and what I read are two different things. I decided to try out In the Woods by Tana French as a vacation book, along with The Golden Compass, which I wrote about last week. It had been highly recommended to me by friends and by podcast critics whose opinions I trust. I barely even knew it was crime fiction, just that it was good.
And I wasn’t disappointed. What I go for in literature is the beautiful lilt of a sentence that captures a moment or idea in a newer, deeper way. French is a master of this art, applying her lyrical prose to the gritty realities of human nature and modern society.
In the Mind
It’s the psychological component that draws me in to crime mysteries. That’s probably what it is for all of us. What happens in the mind of the killer, the victim, the detective? What games do we play with one another and with ourselves? French explores these ideas from the inside.
In the Woods works because the reader is completely in the narrator Rob’s head. You experience his trauma, his addictions, his inability to be honest with himself, and most of all, his attempts to access blocked memories of the moments that tore his life apart. You’re with him as he self-sabotages every aspect of his life. You become as frustrated with him as he is with himself, yet you’re helpless to stop it—just as helpless as he is. Rob’s inner mind is unique; he’s not put into the box of a diagnosis. But if you’re into that sort of thing, there are some interesting explorations of psychopathology. I wish those explorations had gone deeper, but they serve their purpose in the narrative.
French takes on a first person almost-omniscient tone I am exploring in my own writing. Omniscient in the sense that hindsight is *practically* 20/20. The narrator addesses someone (the reader?) from an unknown time in the future. Why does Rob feel the need to tell this story, to make his own confession, so to speak? We are left to speculate. There is a power to this form of narrative, in that the story can be told completely. First person is limiting in obvious ways; the story is skewed by one character’s perception. Third person can be more comprehensive, but lacking the intimacy that draws a reader in. First-person almost-omniscent draws from the best of these two perspectives.
The two-pronged narrative approach is deadly effective. The novel explores two mysteries that occurred in the titular woods: 1) the murder of a twelve-year-old girl, and 2) the disappearance of two children twenty-some years prior. Two incidents that may or may not be related. When one storyline slowed down, the other one kept me going. There’s nothing like the mystery of a forest filled with supressed memories and potential magic to keep the pages turning.
There are moments throughout the novel that capture the inherent misoygny of—what? The 2000s? Cop culture? Ireland? Our world? Female characters are introduced to every scene first by their physical features and perceived level of attractiveness. What interests me about this is that we have a female author writing from a male perspective. In that scenario, I’d think that the male gaze would not be so accurately captured. I wonder: does this mean that French is incredibly adept at entering the mind of her character, or that she herself is (or was) not entirely feminist? If the former, I wonder that Rob is never reprimanded for his thinking, either indirectly through events or by other characters. What would be the point of such effective execution of sexist thinking, if not to perpetuate this mindset? For this reason, I fear the latter, a slight lack of wokeness. But it really is slight; the female characters, particularly Rob’s partner Cassie, are pretty darn badass.
In terms of quality and quantity, Tana French is our era’s Agatha Christie. In fact, think it might be these two rockstars dominating the universe of literary mystery. Has any other era had an Agatha Christie? Can any other author compare? I know little about this genre, so let me know who I’m missing!
In the Woods is the first of French’s Dublin Murder Squad books. While they do not quite constitute a series, they share the same world and the same cast of characters. What changes is the narrator; a different character gets to tell the story in each book. And that’s what French does best. She gets inside the head of a character and takes you with her.