Tana French, IN THE WOODS.
Superb ‘literary’ detective story — the narrative voice isn’t quite believable coming from the narrator as depicted in the story, but I suppose that’s genre convention; crime novels aren’t usually my thing. In any case it wasn’t a problem. The psychological side of the tale is deftly handled — the amnesiac/victim-narrator setup neatly excuses his several bouts of carrying the idiot ball — and the main characters, particularly the female detective, are drawn with care. The investigation is for the most part mundane, which is good; the one A-Ha! moment, about 3/4 of the way through, is earned and believable.
The ‘literary’ angle comes from the neat crosshatch of metaphors which transforms the book’s final third. I kept mistakenly referring to the book, while reading, as Into the Woods — and indeed it’s all about innocents (and otherwise) having weird adventures in a magical forest. The unexpected eldritch tinge, the subtle approach of the paranormal gothic, had me peeking around corners to make sure I wasn’t alone. The book’s final scene, in which a construction worker presents a wounded character with a creepy pendant, is perfectly judged, and caps off a kind of innerstory in which events are driven by a supernatural Evil which seems to reside in the woods, or to be woods themselves. I’ve heard that in later novels in the series the supernatural is more and more explicitly present; I’ve no need for that. The chapter in which the narrator returns overnight to the woods and experiences a harrowing vision (not quite a memory) of his friends, as children, disappearing from the face of the earth — the absolute center of the book — blends present and past, perception and an altogether different sort of vision, so deftly that you can’t quite blame French for holding back on that material. That single scene colours the entire book. It’s gorgeous writing.
The final third of the book moves so quickly that by the end I’d forgiven the book for being too long overall. The repetition and reflection are half the purpose of the story, of course, but the middle third nearly took me out of the book altogether, as French’s metaphorically overloaded red herrings piled up and various telegraphed doomed relationships were proven to be, in fact, doomed. I’m glad I stuck it out; it all makes novelistic sense, to to speak.
The final pages echo the central (not to say ‘primal’) scene, offering a last lovely childhood memory that seems like a well deserved consolation, but then cruelly drops a final clue, a message from the victim herself — too late to help anyone. It’s the whole book in miniature. An exhaustingly mundane murder investigation brushed with supernatural evil that seems to come from the woods itself — you might say, from Ireland itself. (And by the way there’s a long piece to be written, not by me, about this American actor/writer’s not entirely convincing use of Dublin and environs as a setting.)
The more I think about it, the more pleasure it gives me. How’s that for a recommendation?