French is an American-born actor who has traveled widely and has lived in Dublin since 1990. I mention this because her story seems to draw from all levels of her prior experience. Although she is American-born, In the Woods seems very Irish to me, steeped in mythology and blended with a sense of a very modern struggle to establish the country as a viable economy. I don’t know how long she lived in the United States before beginning her peregrinations, but I felt she purposely made her work accessible to non-Irish readers. (In contrast, Roddy Doyle, whom I love, takes for granted the reader knows the ins and outs of Ireland.) French, the actor, has written a drama that centers on the inner turmoil of the narrator, although several other characters receive an excellent 3-D treatment at her hands as well.
The woods border a 1980s housing development that was supposed to have been emblematic of a rising economy, but instead represents more of a failure to thrive. Three adolescents from the estate disappear into the woods one afternoon, and only one eventually emerges, traumatized and unable to remember what happened.
Twenty years later a young girl from the same estate is found murdered and left in a spot next to what remains of the woods. Rob Ryan, the young boy who emerged from the woods long ago, has grown up to become a police detective. Since in French’s world there are no coincidences, he is assigned to the case with his partner, Cassie Maddox, a rare female in the “Murder Squad.”
Just as he once had joined in an idyllic friendship with the two missing children, so now Ryan joins with Cassie and Sam, another detective, to form both work partnerships and personal friendships to solve the young girl’s murder, which in turn may have an impact on Ryan’s own mystery.
French’s glimpse into Ryan’s psychological trauma is suspenseful and compelling. The fact that he is the narrator initially hides his gradual mental breakdown, as he sees shadows flitting at the edge of his vision and he becomes increasingly more “fidgety” with his re-introduction to the village where he lived until his friends disappeared. Can we continue to trust his perception of the current case? He himself says that if there is no darkness in what he sees, he will create darkness. It is not even clear after a certain point that he actually wants his own mystery to be solved because then he may have to face his own instability, and perhaps culpability.
French doesn’t present the reader with a neat and tidy, follow-the-clues mystery. It delves deep into the woods and the psyche, and the solution to Ryan's personal mystery is ambiguous and unsettling. It is to French’s credit and skill as a writer that, nevertheless, the reader is satisfied.
In the Woods is the 2008 winner of the Edgar Mystery Award for Best First Novel by an American and is also the recipient of an MBTB star from Jean.
P.S. French has indicated she is working on a sequel done from the viewpoint of Ryan’s partner, Cassie Maddox.