The virtues of In the Woods (2007), the first novel by Tana French, are many: an intricate plot, compelling narrator, a lush and descriptive prose, narrative momentum and tension, convincing knowledge of the inner workings of law enforcement in Ireland, and so on. The narrator Rob is a detective on the murder squad of the Dublin Police Department. Some 15 years before the present time of the novel, he was one of three children who were victims of a crime in the woods near his hometown. He remembers little of the event, but he was discovered clinging to a tree covered in blood that wasn't his. His two friends, a boy and a girl, were never seen again. The murder that is the focus of this novel involves a 12-year-old girl whose body is discovered on top of a sacrificial altar in the middle of an archaeological dig in the same town where the narrator grew up and where his friends were abducted. With the discovery of the body, both the narrator and the reader begin to wonder whether there is a connection between the crimes.
What Tana French does well in this novel is build a sense of the narrator’s personal history: his past life, his time in a private school where his parents sent him for safety and privacy after the disappearance of his friends, his loss of his Irish accent, and so on. Our narrator is a prime example of an unreliable narrator. He confesses early on that he tells lies, that lies are a part of his job as a detective trying to discover who committed a particular murder: he must, he says, tell lies to get suspects to give up information. It's not until the end that we discover how truly significant his admission is. This unreliable narrator turns out to be an unreliable police detective whose mistakes, incompetence, self-centeredness, and inability to assess his connection to the case result in a psychopath’s being allowed to go free. Having said all this, I haven’t given much away.
I was unhappy when this novel ended because of the narrator's responsibility for botching both the case and his relationship with his partner, and because of the many dimensions of his dishonesty in his interactions with his friends and colleagues. But perhaps that's all a part of the novel’s realism, which colors the action in shades of blame and virtue and evil. There are no sharp dividing lines between the good and the bad, the incompetent and the able.
We have here what I call a diminishing narrator, whose credibility and trustworthiness gradually crumble as the novel progresses. By the end he is pitiable and unlikable. He reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel Tender is the Night: Dick Diver enters the narrative as an entirely admirable person but by the final chapter he is a moral and physical wreck.
Among the problems I have with this novel: the characterizations of the main detective and narrator Rob and his partner Cassie. The ways they talk and joke and banter and pretend to flirt with each other struck me as unrealistic and unbelievable: a total contrivance, an invention, a ruse, an artifice. Sometimes my skin almost cringed when they joked with each other. I wasn't convinced. Some of the secondary characters are more realistically drawn.
This was a first novel, and perhaps as a result there are occasional missteps. I don't read many murder mysteries: this one was certainly above the average quality of the ones I have read. But it seemed odd to me in this novel where the murder takes place in the middle of an archaeological dig and the detectives determine that the victim was not killed where her body was found but instead was killed somewhere nearby that there's not an immediate search of the buildings on the site of the dig: there are two sheds. The detectives don't get around to searching those sheds until late in the novel. This seemed unlikely.