Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 6; 31 January 2021

Tana French, In the Woods

The compelling start to a unique crime fiction series

There are two parallel mysteries at the heart of Tana French’s first novel, In the Woods. In 1984, three 12-year-old children disappeared in some ancient woods at Knocknaree, near Dublin. Two of them were never found and the third, whose shirt was slashed at the back as if by claws, and whose sneakers were full of blood that wasn’t his, never remembered what had happened. Twenty years later, another 12-year-old, a ballet student named Katy Devlin, is murdered with savage brutality — and at the same time a surprising hesitancy — beside the same woods. Near where Katy’s body was left, the detectives find a hair-slide that had belonged to Jamie Rowan, one of the victims of the earlier attack. The slide has presumably lain there undiscovered for 20 years.

Inevitably, the two cases are connected. What isn’t obvious to detective Rob Ryan, the narrator of In the Woods, is that he is the connection. “Robert” is his middle name: he started to use it as a teenager when he was at boarding school in England. Before that, playing in the woods with his two friends, Peter and Jamie, he had gone by his first name, Adam. When Rob gets the opportunity to investigate the murder of a 12-year-old child, in the place where his childhood friends had (presumably) also been murdered, he is unable to resist, and his partner, Cassie, the only person apart from his parents who knows his history, is unable to dissuade him from getting involved in the investigation.

Rob is (of course) an unreliable narrator but he is unreliable in unfamiliar ways. He has no recollection of what happened in the woods but his memory of his life up to the age of 12 has also faded, so that only flashes and fleeting impressions remain. He is sceptical of his mother’s claim that he was a kind child who brought her wild flowers and stopped his friends from bullying the unfortunate, bespectacled Willy Little, but he can’t be sure that she’s wrong. Had he been whitewashing his own character for the benefit of his mother or is he idealizing Peter’s now, in retrospect? One of the things that Rob wishes to accomplish in his investigation of the more recent crime is to recover his memory, both of the earlier incident and of his childhood in general. In this, he is unsuccessful.

After Katy’s killer has been convicted (and the juvenile psychopath who manipulated him has accepted a plea deal and been freed), Rob tells the reader that, with one exception, even those memories that he had painfully reconstructed have evaporated:

Everything before my first day at boarding-school had apparently been excised from my mind, with surgical precision and this time for good. Peter, Jamie, the bikers and Sandra, the wood, every scrap of memory I had retrieved with such laborious care over the course of Operation Vestal: gone. I could remember what it had been like to remember these scenes, once upon a time, but now they had the remote, second-hand quality of old films I had watched or stories I had been told. (Hodder paperback edition, 2007: pp. 578–9)

However, this is not to say that Rob doesn’t know what happened before he went to England. It is obvious that the detective hasn’t been writing his narrative contemporaneously with the demanding and exhausting investigation into Katy’s murder. He has written it after the event, as is made doubly clear by references to things he didn’t know at the time. So when he recounts the story of Alicia Rowan’s decision to send Jamie to boarding school in Dublin, of the three friend’s campaign against that decision by sending the adult world to Coventry, their plan to run away, Alicia’s apparent surrender with “we’ll see” and the friends’ celebration of victory in the upper room of the ruined castle, he isn’t remembering these events in the sense of vividly reexperiencing them. Rather, he is remembering having remembered them. That’s what he means by saying “they had the remote, second-hand quality of … stories I had been told”. Rob is experiencing the difference between episodic memory (vivid, relived) and semantic memory (a bare narrative, separated from experience) that I’ve written about before.

As someone who, because of a deficient episodic memory, has no vivid recollections of childhood (or indeed any earlier period of my life), I probably find Rob a more sympathetic narrator than most readers will. So, though I’m inclined to discount it, I accept that the possibility should be considered that, when he says that his earlier memories had disappeared, Rob is simply lying to the reader. After all, he has warned us at the start of the story (p. 6), “I crave truth. And I lie.” This warning comes as he teases out the contradictions in the detective’s role: his task is to find the evidence that will ultimately be relied on to prove what happened, but he often uses subterfuge and deception in its pursuit.

Like Cassie administering the prescribed caution to Rosalind, while pretending that the very last thing on earth she wants is to hear the latter’s admission of guilt, Rob has slipped the warning past us, in the guise of some abstract remarks about how a detective operates. That being so, we need to think about exactly what lies Rob has been telling us. Having now read the novel a third time, I’m still not sure. If he isn’t trying to deceive us about what he remembers, what else could he be lying about? I expected the second reading of In the Woods to reveal more tangible clues suggesting that Adam had been responsible for the attack on his two companions. It was largely because those clues continued to elude me that I read it a third time, following which I concluded that the novel is not as certain about the fate of Peter and Jamie than I had thought on first reading.

Perhaps the hardest thing to explain about their disappearance is what happened to their bodies. Rob has thoughts about how a body could be hidden in the woods: he asks Katy’s killer why he didn’t bury her corpse, which “would have been the intelligent thing to do” (p. 481). But the detectives who had investigated the original disappearances searched thoroughly for any trace of Jamie or Peter. The surviving detective tells Cassie that they searched the trees:

“After a few weeks, some smart floater remembered an old case where a kid climbed a hollow tree and fell into a hole in the trunk; he wasn’t found till forty years later. Kiernan and McCabe had people checking every tree, shining torches into hollows …” (p. 222; ellipses are original with one exception noted below)

At the end of the story, when the remaining trees have been torn up and the land excavated in preparation for laying the motorway, there is still no trace of Jamie or Peter. All that is found is a metal object, which Rob initially thinks may be an “arrowhead … or part of a pendant”. He examines it more closely.

The thing was cool in my palm, heavier than you would expect. Narrow grooves, half worn away, formed a pattern on one side. I tilted it to the light: a man, no more than a stick figure, with the wide, pronged antlers of a stag. (p. 591)

The antlered man is probably a representation of the Celtic god, Cernunnos, and the object, having been found on the site of the rushed archaeological dig, hurriedly completed to allow the motorway to go through, may well be of prehistoric origin. So there is a suggestion that the two missing children may somehow have been claimed by or sacrificed to an ancient pagan deity. French often likes to hint at some kind of primitive magic at work in her stories. This is an element I intend to look at in more detail when I come to discuss Broken Harbour and The Secret Place (whenever that might be).

For the moment, I’d just like to note that the apparent presence of Cernunnos doesn’t let Rob off the hook. While there is no shortage of suggestions of a malign, invisible presence in the woods — such as the experience Rob has when he attempts to stay there all night — it does seem that this spirit (if we are to take it seriously) operates through human agency. The clear example of this is the laughing “watcher” who supervises the rape of Sandra by Shane Waters, Jonathan Devlin and Cathal Mills. The three young men are the ones who commit the evil act, but they seem to be under some malign influence. Similarly, if a pagan god had “required” the sacrifice of Jamie and Peter, there is good reason to think that the actual killer was human. And the obvious candidate was Adam.

Reticent Rob doesn’t actually lie to us about his history with Heather but he does omit to tell us the truth till very late in the story. At first, all we know is that he rented a room in her apartment because he was attracted to her but that relations between them quickly deteriorated and he came to see her as a whining nuisance. He eventually gives the reader the true picture by reporting Heather’s own words:

Ohhh,” said Heather knowingly, behind me. “You finally slept with her, didn’t you?”
I threw the ice tray back into the freezer. Heather does leave me alone if I ask her to, but it’s never worth it: the resultant sulks and flounces and lectures about her unique sensitivity last much longer than the original irritation would have.
“She doesn’t deserve that,” she said. This startled me. Heather and Cassie dislike each other — once, very early on, I brought Cassie home for dinner and Heather was borderline rude all evening and then spent hours after Cassie left plumping up sofa cushions and straightening rugs and sighing noisily, while Cassie never mentioned Heather again — and I wasn’t sure where this sudden excess of sisterhood was coming from.
“Any more than I did,” she said, and went back into her bedroom and banged the door. (pp. 490–1)

Rob doesn’t deal well with intimacy, or perhaps it’s simply sex he has a problem with. After he and Cassie have sex (just once, naturally) their relationship crumbles spectacularly. Up to then, they have seemed to be mysteriously in tune with each other on some deep level. Sam thinks they must have been friends for years and is surprised to learn that they first met only when Cassie joined the Murder Squad. They quite naturally fall into complementary roles while questioning suspects and witnesses, to the extent of sometimes seeming to read each other’s minds. As Rob puts it,

I can’t explain the alchemy that transmuted one evening into the equivalent of years spent lightly in common. The only way I can put it is that we recognised, too surely even for surprise, that we shared the same currency. (p. 24)

This happy state does not survive their sleeping together. Here is Rob’s response to that occurrence:

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 … Even if it hadn’t been against regulations, I couldn’t even manage to eat or sleep or buy toilet bleach, I was lunging at suspects and blanking on the stand and having to be rescued from archaelogical sites in the middle of the night; the thought of trying to be someone’s boyfriend, with all the attendant responsibilities and complications, made me want to curl up in a ball and whimper. (p. 403)

Of course, the options aren’t as limited as they seem to Rob in his agitated condition. Cassie doesn’t feel nearly as trapped as he does, and hasn’t been expecting things to change between them. When she asks Rob why he’s being weird with her, he replies that he’s not in any state to begin a relationship.

Relationship?” Cassie’s eybrows shot up; she almost laughed. “Jesus, is that what all this is about? No, Ryan, I don’t expect you to marry me and have my little babies. What the hell made you think I wanted a relationship? I just want things to go back to normal, because this is ridiculous.” (p. 424)

When Rob says that he doesn’t think things can go back to normal, and that sleeping together had been a major mistake, she answers that it doesn’t need to be a mistake.

“… But it doesn’t have to be a huge big deal. We’re friends, we’re close, that’s why this happened, it should just bring us a little closer, end of story.” (p. 425)

“Rob, it’s just me”, she adds, but she can’t get through to him. His previous behaviour with Heather tells us that it isn’t just the strain of the case that’s causing him to behave weirdly. But despite the disintegration of their friendship, Rob and Cassie remain fully in tune with each other when they question and get a confession from Katy’s murderer. At least that’s how Rob sees it:

It was our last partnership. I wish I could show you how an interrogation can have its own beauty, shining and cruel as that of a bullfight … how the great pairs of detectives knew each other’s every thought as surely as lifelong ballet partners in a pas de deux. I never knew and never will whether Cassie or I was a great detective, though I suspect not, but I know this: we made a team worthy of bard-songs and history books. This was our last and greatest dance together, danced in a tiny interview room with darkness outside and rain falling soft and relentless on the roof, for no audience but the doomed and the dead. (p. 457; my ellipsis)

Clearly, Rob’s “breakup” with Cassie is at the core of the novel, and the situation with Heather indicates that his difficulties with intimacy and/or sex form a pattern. So, we can hardly avoid asking whether some similar crisis may have occurred between him and Jamie and whether this might have led to her and Peter’s deaths. The children’s disappearance occurs towards the end of an abnormally hot summer, during which Jamie’s single mother, Alicia, has announced her intention of sending Jamie to boarding school in Dublin. The children, Jamie most of all, are dismayed and refuse to speak to their parents, ignoring them until Alicia seems to relent, saying "We’ll see” and “Don’t worry.” When, not long afterwards, Alicia tells Jamie that she still plans to send her away to school, Jamie feels that she has been the victim of a trick.

When something was wrong we mostly went to the same place: the top room of the castle. The staircase leading up to it had long since crumbled away, and from the ground you couldn’t even really tell it was there; you had to climb the outer wall, all the way over the top, and then jump down onto the stone floor. Ivy trailing down the walls, branches tumbling overhead: it was like a bird’s nest, swinging high up in the air. (p. 386)

This is where Jamie goes when her mother’s deception is revealed. Adam and Peter follow her. Adam gets there first, and finds her sobbing.

Before I knew I was going to do it, I ducked my head and kissed her on the cheek. Her tears were wet on my mouth. She smelled like grass in the sun, hot and green, intoxicating.
She was so startled that she stopped crying. Her head whipped round and she stared at me, wide red-rimmed blue eyes, very close. I knew she was going to do something, punch me, kiss me back — (p. 387)

Whatever she was going to do is interrupted by Peter, who instigates a plan to run away. According to the plan, the children would initially have hidden in that same upper room of the castle. I’m struck by the description of it swinging like a bird’s nest, high up in the air. It sounds precarious. And, if the stairs to it have crumbled away, it isn’t too much of a stretch to suppose that the rest of the structure is lacking in solidity. It seems significant that the disappearance of the children takes place just two weeks after they’ve settled on the plan to run away.

When Mark Hanly is showing Rob around at the very start of the investigation, Rob remarks on the late-mediaeval keep at the centre of the dig site:

We had reached the stone tower in the middle of the site. Arrow-slits showed through gaps in the ivy, and a section of broken wall sloped down from one side. It looked vaguely, frustratingly familiar, but I couldn’t tell whether this was because I actually remembered it or because I knew I should. (p. 35)

Mark tells him that, having built the keep in the fourteenth century, the Walsh clan then added a castle over the next few hundred years. It is clear that the castle has collapsed in the meantime, leaving only the keep and the “section of broken wall”. The room where the children had met to prepare for their running away had evidently been part of this structure which has since disappeared. It is clear that the landscape has changed significantly in the 20 years since Adam and his friends played there. Arriving at the site, Rob notes that only a strip of trees is left of what had been an extensive wood (p. 31).

So, perhaps the fact that the bodies of Jamie and Peter haven’t been turned up by either the archaeological dig or the motorway work doesn’t, after all, mean that the bodies weren’t there. Perhaps they were hidden in the castle room, or buried in a part of the wood which has long since been flattened and turned into a field.

While the book does not clearly accuse (still less convict) Adam of having killed his playmates, neither does it put forward any likely alternative suspect. The children’s disappearance remains unexplained, but the possibility that it was Rob’s doing is still one that the reader is unable to dismiss.

In the next issue, in two weeks’ time, I’m going to be looking at The Likeness, the second novel in French’s series, which is even better than In the Woods, and in which Cassie is the narrator and protagonist.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 31-Jan-2021.