Periodically, I head to the majors to read an author that everyone is talking about. This time I picked up Tana French’s debut novel, In The Woods, the first of her Dublin Murder Squad books published by Penguin. First off, there is no doubt that French can write. Her sentences flow as easily as a creek on a summer day. There is also a smartness to French’s words, she is not dumbing down anything for her readers. In the first chapter, the narrator who is a detective introduces himself:
What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.
French doesn’t write “What I want you to remember” instead she writes “What I warn you to remember”, this slight word choice makes the reader stumble a bit, but an intentional stumble as the writer grabs our full attention to every word rather than allowing us to blissfully read unaware of the words going by. The narrator declares truth as “the most desirable woman in the world” and then tells us that as detectives they “betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies”. This introduction ends with this bit:
This is my job, and you don’t go into it—or, if you do, you don’t last—without some natural affinity for its priorities and demands. What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie.
Oh great, the unreliable narrator appears. Not. A. Fan. The unreliable narrator is nothing more than a cheap parlor trick and, to paraphrase Samuel Johson, it is the last refuge of scoundrels. But at least French forewarned me.
The narrator, Rob Ryan, and his partner Cassie Maddox are sent to sent to a Dublin suburb to investigate the death of a 12-year-old girl. Now the woods that the girl was found in is the same woods that Ryan and two of his friends disappeared in years ago. Ryan was the only one who survived. By deftly changing his name and taking on a posh accent, Maddox is the only one who knows Ryan’s secret. The narrator tells us two things. The first is that he has dealt successfully with his early disappearance and the second is that he and Maddox are just partners, there is nothing sexual between the two. Given that Ryan has already declared himself as a liar, we know where this book is going.
What bothered me most with all of this is not that French would have Ryan delve into his past and somehow connect his childhood disappearance with their new murder case or that Ryan and Maddox end up sleeping with each other, rather it is Ryan’s unbelievable response to their liaison. After sleeping with his best friend, Ryan’s thoughts were these:
This is our usual weekend routine when I stay over, a big Irish breakfast and a long walk on the beach, but I couldn’t face either the excruciating thought of talking about anything that had happened the previous night or the heavy-handed complicity of avoiding it. The flat felt suddenly tiny and claustrophobic.
I knew, you see, that I had just made at least one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I had slept with the wrong people before, but I had never done anything at quite this level of monumental stupidity. The standard response after something like this happens is either to begin an official “relationship” or to cut off all communication—I had attempted both in the past, with varying degrees of success—but I could hardly stop speaking to my partner, and as for entering into a romantic relationship…
This goes on for pages and pages, chapters and chapters. I’ve just past half-way through a 612-page novel and French has brought me from compassion for to despising her main character for the rest of the book. It was difficult to make it through the rest of the book as Ryan made one idiotic decision after another. I enjoy books where characters make bad decisions, but when these decisions are made out of character, I find it frustrating and more than that unbelievable.