Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda Book: In The Woods


Time on to-read list: A year and a half

Reason for not picking up book: Mysteries “aren’t really my thing” these days.

Reason for finally picking it up: Endless, overwhelmingly positive reviews that made it sound like no mystery I’ve ever read before.

I really thought that all the magic had been taken out of mysteries for me. I’ve seen just as many Law and Order episodes as you have (and probably, for the less pathetic or procrastination-prone among you, many more) and I was obsessed with Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Encylopedia Brown as a child. I could recite the plots to you. I’m a teacher now, and I will tell you that reading a mystery series are one of the first things we recommend students do when they have mastered the basics and are ready for chapter books in about second grade. They have recurring and predictable characters and character types, the framework of how we’re guided from beginning to end tends to be the same: they help children gain confidence with learning story structure, making predictions, articulating the idea of a genre and beginning to analyze characters.

All of which means that it has been some time since I’ve found a mystery that goes beyond this structure to offer me something new. The last one that was remotely memorable to me was The Flanders Panel. But Perez-Reverte’s literary tendencies, rich, layered characters and gothic sympathies were the reason for that. It had very little to do with the mystery as such.

And that was the case all over again here. A mystery, undeniably structured as such and presented as such, where the mystery is hardly the point. This is a story you’ve heard before- two children go missing in the woods and are never seen again- twenty years later, their case gone cold, another child turns up dead- this time in even odder circumstances. Our two detectives are baffled, there are many suspects, etc, etc. I solved whodunit and why by no more than a third of the way through, using all the typical tools that I’ve taught elementary school children to use. But that was so very much beside the point. It was almost like an annoying little gnat of a problem in my ear that I wanted to get rid of so that I could focus on what really mattered about the book: the characters and the prose.

The major character we’re dealing with is one of the lead detectives on the case: Rob Ryan. What a fascinatingly messed up specimen of a man. I really liked that Tana French made the choice to put us in his poorly functioning head, which becomes more and more dysfunctional as the story goes on. It is no stream-of-consciousness of madness a la Faulkner, but she uses her narrative voice to show the unraveling no less effectively. We only slowly realize that while we can trust him to tell us a lot about his past, his present feelings and his observations, he is unreliable on perhaps the most important part of the case. The reasons are maddening, and mostly understandable (which I will discuss below). I really liked how French wove together the present-day narrative with increasing trips back into the past, which build and build until Ryan feels the need to try to physically transport himself there. His narrative could go in one of many directions, very few of them good, but most of them potentially interesting. I liked that French allowed her main character to make unlikeable choices, even some that weren’t understandable to many (more on that later). And yet… she still made our experience inside his head striking, and at many times, beautiful.

But the secondary characters deserve to be mentioned here as well. Cassie, Rob Ryan’s partner, the gregarious guy’s girl with balls of steel who has so much energy that sometimes she has to do cartwheels in order to burn it off before she can talk. She’s sharp eyed and insightful, a brilliant reader of people who deflects all personal questions with a banter developed by desperation. It’s no wonder French made her the subject of her second novel. There’s Sam, the third wheel to our two main characters, and the least resentful, most gracious third wheel I’ve ever come across- capable in his own quiet way without needing to be the leading man in the drama. There’s O’Kelly, the most predictable old-fashioned police official in the world, and Quigley, a detective in the story so little, but who I have such a strong image and probable background idea of that he might as well have been in every scene. French is one of those rare writers capable of telling you everything you need to know about a character in a single paragraph sketch and without listing any basic information about them. It’s a gift I’ve only come across in very few writers- all of whom have a place in The Important Canon, in one way or another. It’s something to be cherished, and something I look forward to seeing French develop further in the future.

And then there’s the prose. Oh wow the prose. Look, I might be mentioning this last, but it deserves to be mentioned last, first and everywhere in between. One of the strongest selling points of French’s books is her gorgeous, gothic, intricate prose. Her observations of people are capable of hitting you right in the gut, and flashing images of everyone you ever knew like that through her head. (I had to stop once and give the middle finger to the memory that unavoidably surfaced in the air. He took awhile to dissipate.) She does wonderful offhand descriptions, with gems of passing phrases that will stick in your mind- I felt them reaching out to drag me into the book almost unavoidably.

But it is the atmospheric work that really does it. Ireland lends itself to this. It makes it feel natural, like these are thoughts you could have when you just look up one day, but French really hits it out of the park over and over. Her descriptions are brilliant, inserted into pages of plot that could have done without it, but pack ten times the punch with it. They carry hints of the otherworldly and not-quite-there, hints which reappear throughout the book (and may even have something to do with the unstated resolution). Here are just some lovely examples:

“The wood had never been so lush or so feral. Leaves threw off dazzles of sunlight like sparklers and the colors were so bright you could live on them, the smell of fertile earth amplified to something as heady as church wine. We shot through humming clouds of midges and leaped ditches and rotten logs, branches swirled around us like water, swallows trapezed across our path and in the trees alongside I swear three deer kept pace with us. I felt light and lucky and wild, I had never run so fast or jumped so high; one shove of my foot and I could have been airborne…”

“Out of absolutely nowhere I felt a sudden sweet shot of joy, piercing and distilled as the jolt I imagine heroin users get when the fix hits the vein. It was my partner bracing herself as she slid fluidly off the desk, it was the neat practiced movement of flipping my notebook shut one-handed, it was my superintendent wriggling into his suit jacket and covertly checking his shoulders for dandruff, it was the garishly lit office with a stack against the window. It was the realization, all over again, that this was real and it was my life. Maybe Katy Devlin, if she had made it that far, would have felt this way about the blisters on her toes, the pungent smell of sweat and floor wax in the dance studios. Maybe she, like me, would have loved the tiny details and the inconveniences even more dearly than the wonders, because they are the things that prove you belong.”

“I didn’t go home that night until three in the morning, when I could be sure that Heather would be asleep. I drove out to Bray, to the seafront, and sat there in the car. It had finally stopped raining and the night was dense with mist; the tide was in, I could hear the slap and rush of the water, but I caught only the odd glimpse of waves between the swirls of erasing grey. The gay little pavilion drifted in and out of existence like something out of Brigadoon. Somewhere a foghorn sounded one melancholy note over and over and people walking along the seafront materialized gradually out of nothingness, silhouettes floating in midair. I thought about a lot of things that night. I thought of Cassie in Lyons, just a girl in an apron, serving coffee at sunny outdoor tables… I thought of my parents getting ready to go out dancing: the careful lines my father’s comb left in his Brylcreemed hair, the rousing scent of my mother’s perfume and her flower-patterned dressed whisking out the door… I thought of Mark’s reckless eyes- The only things I believe in our out there at that dig- and then of revolutionaries waving ragged, gallant banners, of refugees swimming swift nighttime currents… And I tried, for a long time, to remember bringing my mother wildflowers.’

Are there flaws? Of course. I was conflicted about the presentation French goes for at the beginning of the book. French seemed to be trying very hard to tell us that her mission would be to deconstruct mystery stories at the beginning. So much her main character did or said was commented on from a wry distance, with remarks about how he “looked like a detective out of Central Casting,” scattered about to show us that, she, too, is aware of the clichés of the genre. But that changed very quickly. What I liked about that was that French let us, without even realizing it was happening, get gradually sucked into the atmosphere of the story by getting out all our laughter and knowing comments at the beginning so that we could all agree we were very clever, and then relax into and become consumed with the story in a more genuine way. I also liked that it symbolized the main character’s distance from his work, his ability to compartmentalize and think he won’t be affected by the case, and how gradually and horribly he’s proven wrong about that. What I didn’t like about it was that she seemed to be using her narrator’s head to make comments that were more suited to a third person omniscient character (particularly at the beginning). It made Rob’s voice less genuine and it took me longer to connect with him because of it. I also felt like it set up expectations that this was going to be a very different book at first- one of the things that may have upset readers that found that they liked this book much less than later ones in the series.

Also, as I mentioned above, I solved who the murderer was early on and it became just a bit maddening that our main character couldn’t do the same. Of course he had his reasons for it <spoiler> which had everything to do with his traumatized history and his sympathy towards the survivors of a trauma, particularly survivors who could be suspected of guilt, as he is just figuring out all these years later that he could be. It also, less sympathetically, had something to do with his preferences for seemingly weak, “ethereal” tiny women that says a lot about his inability to leave the past behind and move on- to agree to be an adult, in a seemingly very tired way that we’ve seen one too many romcoms about.</spoiler>. It doesn’t make it any less annoying- particularly as the story goes on and he is really and truly forced to have his face pushed into it before it becomes obvious. I’m willing to forgive it, but it’s still there.

But I also want to mention one big flaw that a lot of people seemed to be bothered by and I wasn’t at all, which is the lack of appropriate resolution to at least two important elements of the story that were brought up again and again: Rob’s personal life and the case from 1984. He spends a great deal of the book trying to remember what happened to him, gets closer and closer- remembers more and more- and then all of a sudden, it’s gone. Everything goes back to the way it was before- with him no longer remembering a single thing.I was frustrated that after all that build up we didn’t get resolution to the second part under the spoiler tag, but unlike others, I think I was meant to be frustrated- as frustrated as the main character was. But for me, personally, I felt like, you know what? That’s what trauma is like. It fucks you over and then does it again, and sometimes you never beat it. Did we expect that because… what… time had passed that his brain would suddenly find a new coping mechanism for what had happened? Because we think that facing trauma is what we’re supposed to do, that everyone’s brain works that way?

Trauma doesn’t owe us any answers. It doesn’t owe us any meaning. And narratively, I think that it is a strong choice to show that. Especially with a case like Rob’s. Sometimes you beat your head against a wall and find out that the wall isn’t coming down and you’re going to have to live with that.

As for his personal life… we knew that this wasn’t going to be that kind of story, even if it had stuck to the hard-boiled meta deconstruction of noir that I thought it might be at first. Why would we expect that that would work out? That sucker punch we get at the end, that phone call, which left me gasping with stinging tears in my eyes, was completely deserved and appropriate to what happened in the story. Did you guys forget what he did to Cassie? She had suffered at the hands of a psychopath and refused to finish college because she couldn’t stand not being believed or trusted. And then Rob did it to her all over again. It was devastating, and absolutely right. That disconnection that never quite let go, the leftover voices drifting to him out of the night, in whispers he can’t share… it’s like all of his nightmares, and all of his dreams at once.

Most of all, I forgive the flaws because all I could remember, at the end, were suspended moments of sacred time, stolen from the practical everyday, often with only an audience of a few in a room with dozens. Like the moment when Cassie is being outfitted for a major operation, and she’s asked to test a mike, and this is the poem she offers:

“About your easy heads my prayers

I said with syllables of clay.

What gift, I asked, shall I bring now

Before I weep and walk away?


Take, they replied, the oak and laurel.

Take our fortune of tears and live

Like a spendthrift lover. All we ask

Is the one gift you cannot give.”

Close your eyes. What’s the feeling that gives you?

Now open them again. That, with quiet around and irony erased, is what the best parts of this book are like.

If you, like me, search for this and rarely find the genuine article- you’re probably not even seeing this. Because you’re already out the door to find this book. Do. You won’t regret it.