Literary Liaisons, On the Shelf

On The Shelf- In The Woods

I love a good whodunit. My bread and butter may lay more with fiction of the speculative variety, but at my core, I’m a puzzle solver. I want to put together the clues and see if I can’t figure it all out before the plot reaches the denouement. Unfortunately, I have consumed so much media over the years that I’ve become intimately familiar with all of the conventions of the mystery genre. As a result, some of the subtler breadcrumbs writers leave along the way for their readers instead read like big neon signs for me. I felt this was an important trait of mine to inform you of as we take a look at the subject of this edition of On The Shelf, Tana French’s debut novel In The Woods.
In The Woods follows the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad as they investigate the death of a twelve-year-old girl in a country neighborhood outside Dublin. The story is written in the first person perspective of Detective Rob Ryan who grew up in that same neighborhood twenty years before. At least he did until his two best friends went missing, leaving him behind without any memory of what had happened to them. After a piece of evidence found at the murder site links their current investigation back to the disappearances, the past and present begin to dovetail for Detective Ryan. To add a little tension to the story Detective Ryan informs the readers from page one that he is an unreliable narrator. Much as I just did in that first paragraph.
The main plot is well conceived and well executed as far as murder mysteries go. There are no plot holes or incredibly out of character actions that are undertaken solely to drive the plot forward. But when looked at the novel as a whole, the mystery is also fairly pedestrian with the red herrings feeling like obvious dead ends as soon as they are introduced and the true culprit seeming pretty obvious from the start (at least to me). As much as I had high hopes for some surprising twists, in the end everything went about how I expected it to go
What sets In The Woods apart is its subplot, which focuses on the personal relationships of the detectives investigating the case. Here the novel feels more original. Not necessarily with the notion of a past trauma that intersects with current events, that is fairly old hat in the murder mystery game; but with the psychological unraveling of the detectives involved. Here is where Ms. French sets herself apart and elevates a ho-hum mystery into something more interesting.
I say interesting because I’m still not entirely sure where I come down on this book. It is certainly worthy of a read by fans of the genre, or simply fans of fiction in general. But I don’t know if in recommending it I would be overly confident that the person I recommend it to would enjoy it. The ending is rather unsatisfying, the narrator can be quite annoying at times, and as a whole, I think this falls in the category of love it, hate it, or deeply confused over whether you love it or hate it. I do believe that if someone who has read it spots it on your shelf it will certainly prompt a lively conversation.

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