In The Woods: A Great Book for a Bleak Weekend

Today, the Seattle sky is as grey as old, unwashed linens. I have a cruddy cold, but I just finished the BEST book, the perfect antidote to a yucky day. IN THE WOODS by Tana French (Viking 2007) is a mystery/thriller/police procedural that is beautifully written, and relies on its characters for its drama, as opposed to cheap ending twists. You know the mysteries I’m talking about — the ones that have the third tier bit character who shows up in the first act, finds a seemingly random way to insinuate him/herself into the main detective’s life, and turns out–SHOCKINGLY–to be the killer. It’s reached the point where when I read a mystery, on the basis of that formula alone, I generally can guess the identity of the killer within the first fifty pages.

In the Woods CoverIN THE WOODS is nothing like that. French ties together a 20-year old mystery involving two missing children with a recent murder. The lead detective of the current case, Rob Ryan, is part of that link; he was with the two children–his best friends–on the day they went missing, but has no memory of the event. Given his background and emotional baggage stemming from that traumatic event, both he and the reader are frequently left to second-guess the reliability of Rob’s observations and conclusions. Fortunately for him, he’s not in it alone. His partner and best friend, Cassie Maddox, provides a stabilizing influence, as does the third detective, Sam O’Neill.

The characters in this book are its greatest strength. As I vicariously lived through the friendship of Cassie and Rob, it reminded me a great deal of one of my other favorite detective pairings, Dennis Lehane‘s Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, in his series of novels starting with A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR. Cassie and Rob’s verbal spars are like the best kind of brother-sister insults cushioned by affection and fondness, giving the fate of their friendship a real stake in the novel. The plot as well is complicated but logical, and the book’s surprises are well earned. But best of all, there are just a few threads left loose, making the novel’s ending feel like a symphony whose final chord is in a minor key.

Who writes your favorite mysteries?

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2 Responses to “In The Woods: A Great Book for a Bleak Weekend”

  1. Betty Olson Says:

    Toddie, I’m uncertain if this book would correctly be classified as a “mystery” – but it is certainly good, enjoyable fiction “Southern style”.
    The book is “Magic Time” by Doug Marlette. It relates directly back to the Civil Rights movement in the ’60’s and I thought the character development was excellent. Marlette can get a bit too profuse with words in some of the descriptive paragraphs, but overall, it was a most enjoyable and interesting read!

  2. toddiedowns Says:

    I hadn’t heard of Marlette before, so I looked him up. Underachiever that he was, he was the cartoonist of the syndicated strip KUDZU and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his editorial cartoons. Tragically, he was killed in a car accident in July of last year. But from reading about his work and the company he kept (one of his eulogists was another terrific Southern writer whom you might have heard of, Pat Conroy), I’m going to check MAGIC TIME out of the library today!

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