Have you ever just wanted to smack a book character and the author who created him? That’s how I’m feeling right now, though I will have to settle for shaking the librarian who recommended In the Woods by Tana French.
I had a free pass, too. I decided to join my neighborhood branch mystery book club to improve my understanding of the genre. Sarah gave me In the Woods to read for the next meeting. I put it aside because I was in the middle of three projects and had no time for reading or much of anything else. Friday, I decided enough was enough and it was time for a vacation. Not having time for a vacation, I figured a book by a new author would do as well. I looked at the calendar and discovered the book club had met on Tuesday. I would read the book anyway, as penance.
The two page preface put me off. Not because it was badly written. Because it was too well written–so effusive with descriptive hyperbole, the page swam before me, undulating passages that I lost my way in. By the time I got to the end of a sentence, I forgot what it was about. I almost put it down.
“No, I shall carry on. After all, I am used to reading James Patterson. I need to expand my horizons. The Washington Post loved it. I should discover why.”
The book is told through the voice of Rob Ryan, a self-admitted coward who believes his reputation as a detective is maintained by looking the part more than by any true merit. There is an annoying note of self-castigating self-absorption that runs through the book, marring the pleasure I wanted to take in French’s lyrical prose. Ryan’s sensitivity apparently applies only to himself. As the book progresses, he reveals himself to be a bonafied dirt-bag.
But Rob has a compelling back-story. As a child, he entered the woods to play with his two best friends. Many hours later, he is discovered, traumatized, with no memory of the day’s events. His friends never appear again. The jacket blurb promises “Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him, and that of his own shadowy past.”
Even though NPR’s Morning Edition promised this book would bamboozle even the most astute reader, I knew who my money was on early in the game (I was right). But I soldiered on to the end, lured by the promise of his childhood mystery. The promise is ultimately unfulfilled.
Maybe Ryan grows in some way through his tribulations. Nope. In the end, “She informed me, matter-of-factly, that she was old enough to know the difference between intriguing and fucked up.” Once a loser, always a loser.
The mystery is complex and well-told, the villain is suitably heinous and the police procedure is convincing. It’s a shame she didn’t have a better story to tell about her protagonist (Ryan is such an unsympathetic character that I started wondering if he was based on an ex-boyfriend. Hint to French: Next time, kill him off in a prolonged and gory manner early in the book and get it out of your system).
Tana French is a good writer. Much of this book is worth reading. I was most engrossed by the memories Ryan recovers of the summer of 1984. Even so, tomorrow I’m going to find Sarah, and I’m going to ask her what the hell she was thinking.