REVIEW: IN THE WOODS by Tana French, published by Hodder

ISBN 978 1 444 75834 4 Paperback £8.99

If you fancy a copy, here’s a link:

This is a book I read early this year. It was recommended to me while I was on a Smithsonian Journeys tour last October. I was the Smithsonian Expert for the trip, and one of the clients, an excellent lady with an encyclopaedic knowledge of crime and mystery writing, suggested I should read this.

I will talk a little about the book, the story itself, and what I liked about it. However, I will also mention one spoiler at the end of the review, so if you don’t want to read that, feel free to skip the last bit (I’m making it very obvious where the spoiler is, don’t worry).

The back’s blurb reads: “One picture-book summer, three children ran into the woods outside Dublin to play. Only one came out – and he had no memory of what had happened to the other two.

“Twenty years later, Detective Rob Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox come to the woods to investigate the murder of another child. But Ryan is keeping a secret of his own …” 

So far, so modern crime story. A police officer sort of seeking redemption in this enquiry because (this ain’t a spoiler, it’s in it from the very beginning), he was the one boy who came out of the woods all that time ago. And now he wants to try to achieve closure over that incident (I won’t call it murder, since the children were never found – what, was it two runaways, or an alien abduction?) by resolving this latest one. 

There is a great sense of tension throughout the book. It is, as my agent would say, “edgy”. But I cannot say that the superlatives thrown at the book are justified. Yes, it provides some brilliant characterisation, and the investigation is as good as you’d expect in a crime novel, but the concept of a semi-broken policeman who gradually starts on a downhill, alcohol-fuelled destructive journey which almost costs him his job and causes untold damage to him and his partner is not particularly new. I’ve written about a similar situations myself. Still, Tana French has a good eye for detail, and her depiction of the main characters is very good. 

As to the plot, well, it embraces corruption, child abuse and ticks all the other modern boxes you’d expect. And it does it all very well. 

Overall, did I like it? 

With one crashing irritation (below) yes, I did. I liked the atmosphere, the sense of place, the characters (although Ryan really was a dickhead on many occasions). The investigation I thought was well thought through and twisty enough for this crime writer’s love of the convoluted. And generally it was believable. 

Criticisms – the minor sort. It really should have been edited back a little. It did not need to be nearly 600 pages. Yes, 600 pages. There are quite a few sections that could have done with an editor’s red pen. However, for a book this long, they were pretty rare.

Would I recommend the book? 

Yes, unhesitatingly. It was a very good read. There was a real sense of suspense and I wanted to know what was going to happen and how the two incidents – the disappearances and the murder – were going to be resolved. It was a good read for a few days when I really needed something to turn my mind off. 

So why has it taken over six months to write a review?


If you’re still here now, then you only have yourself to blame!

Okay, I said that the book kept me going because of the two mysteries. First was the disappearance of the two children; second was the murder.

The three children, Ryan and the others, walked into the woods. That is the first item on the blurb. Only one came out. All the way through the story, the mystery of the two children’s disappearance is elaborated and reinforced. It is a significant event in the life of the policeman, who had been forced to change his name and go to an English public boarding school to try to escape media interest in his case. It has shaped his life and haunts him still. The two disappeared children are almost additional characters throughout the book.

Often, when writing books, authors come up with these kinds of brilliant scenes or plot concepts. And there is only one golden rule to these brilliant inventions: 

that the damn things are explained.

And that is the spoiler, and the reason for my extreme irritation with this book. Not that the explanation of the disappearance of the two is explained badly. That is forgivable (writers can forgive a lot when it comes to another author’s writing – we’ve been there, after all). No, what is not forgivable at all is the complete lack of any attempt to resolve what happened to those two kids in the woods!

When I say lack, what I mean is, there is no resolution. Nada. Nothing. It is not explained in any way whatsoever. There are supernatural hints (which add to the suspense), but there is no conclusion. At the end of the book I put it down with a feeling of being cheated. It is not too much to expect that a half of the actual plot was just left hanging. Are we to believe that the successful cop at the end of the story was content because he had solved a recent murder, and that absolved him in some way from the event in which he had been somehow (we don’t know because he doesn’t remember) involved?

So, in summary, would I recommend this book? As I said, yes. I enjoyed it all the way through to the end. When I reached the end, I immediately started turning the pages to see if I had missed something. Was there a glaring, but brief, explanation which I had glossed over and whose significance I had missed? Was there a chapter I had inadvertently forgotten? Had my children moved my bookmark just to confuse me? 

No. From looking at reviews on Amazon, not only was I correct to think that the book didn’t deal with the disappearances, but I understand that the future stories in the series don’t mention the event either! I had wondered whether this was a hook to hang the series on, but clearly not. It was only ever a simple device to give an additional angle to the characterisation of a policeman.

And that, to me as a reader as well as a writer is a cop out (yes, pun intended). I would not have expected the book (good as it is) to have passed a serious editor with what is, to me, a very fatal flaw.

I do hate to give negative reviews. Generally I will not. I have mentioned this many times. Authors work very hard to produce their works, which then earn them peanuts – about 12 pennies per sale on paperbacks, for example. A book which I don’t like may well appeal to millions of others, and there is nothing to say that my opinion is any more valid than the views of others. However, Tana is a glowing success, her career is assured, and my complaint will not affect her future income. So, I have to say that I think that the book, while a good read, doesn’t give the basic sense of closure that the reader should experience on putting a book down. 

So yes, get a copy and read it … but be aware of that hole in the conclusion.

2 Responses to “REVIEW: IN THE WOODS by Tana French, published by Hodder”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    An interesting review…


  2. Rishika says:

    Just finished the book, and I completely agree!


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