Archive for August, 2009

I just finished reading Tana French’s brilliant first novel, IN THE WOODS, and I haven’t been this excited about a new writer since I stumbled across Natsuo Kirino a few years back. The book is ambitious in both plot and execution, weaving the threads of two crimes — one past, one present — into an unusual police procedural that frequently diverges from the cliches of the genre. Just to make things even more interesting, the action takes place in Dublin, Ireland, lending a foreign feel to a thoroughly familiar kind of story, and (this is where the ambitious part comes in) one of the detectives attempting to solve the current crime is a victim of the first one, which took place in the very same woods of the book’s title.

Written in a style that’s considerably more literary and leavened with mythical overtones than the average police procedural, French never lets her prose become too flowery to overwhelm the story, and the action moves at a brisk clip, even when she sidesteps into various subplots not strictly germane to the whodunit element. One of the most exciting things about her approach to the book, though, is how unpredictable the characters are — this is definitely not a formula police procedural (even if it does subtly impose an American style of policing onto the Irish legal system), and the nuanced characterization and realistic characters are a considerable step up from most books of a similar nature. (I’ve been attempting to read one of the last William J. Caunitz books recently, without much success, and he could learn a lot from reading this book and applying her attention to detail and superb characterization skills to his own books, if he weren’t quite so dead.)

This is not to say the book is flawless. The narrator, Detective Rob Ryan — a badly damaged man who witnessed two of his friends disappear in the woods as a child and now cannot remember anything that happened that day, making him a psychologically poor candidate for investigating the brutal murder of a twelve-year old girl in the same woods — sounds awfully girly at times, for one thing. Even a writer as good as French runs into trouble accurately sounding like the opposite sex, and speaking from a man’s perspective, not all of his behavior and dialogue ring completely true. Her flaws in this area are pretty minimal, however, and certainly not enough to seriously detract from the book’s brilliance. Some readers will almost certainly be more disturbed by her deliberately inconclusive ending; if you approach crime novels expecting to have everything neatly resolved by the end of the book, this one will disappoint you. Of course, that’s one of the biggest reasons I liked the book. I’m about to start reading her second novel, THE LIKENESS; let’s hope it turns out the first one wasn’t a fluke.



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