In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…
You know, R.E.M. actually did a cover of The Lion Sleeps Tonight as their B-side to The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite (which, in a 2010 survey in the UK, was itself determined to be the most misheard song in the UK, curiously enough). And the highest that that single peaked on the charts was in Ireland, which, really, made it quite fitting to open from there since this book takes place on that acid green island. I know, I know – its supposed to be called emerald, but, really, believe me, you don’t want an emerald the shade of what much of that grass is, that’s glow-in-the-dark green, nearer a decent peridot than a sedate, stately emerald. Trust me on this one, I’ve worked in jewelry before.
Several weeks ago, I picked a paperback copy of this book off of the shelf of a used bookstore that smelled of salt and old paper. Why? I think the title caught my eye – sounded like it could be a creepy book, edging into horror (and if there are two things I’m good at sniffing out in books that haven’t made any allusion to it on their copy, it is horror and homosexuality). And then it was the cover, perhaps; its got an excellent cover design, and I’m usually one who is snide about that sort of thing, they’re so often so bog-standard. But here it was genuinely eye-catching, the lettering slowly creeping toward the wilds. And then when I flipped it around and read the description, I figured I had managed to catch a stealth horror tale. As it turns out, I was wholly incorrect on that count, but that doesn’t matter anymore.
In the Woods starts off with a fairly run of the mill story – detective finds himself on a case that reminds him eerily of something from his past. In this case, that detective is Rob Ryan, and his past is that he was the apparent survivor of a mysterious event; when he was twelve, he was found clinging to a tree in the woods near his house, his sneakers full of blood, his two closest friends completely gone, his memory, too. This time, its a murdered girl left on an archaeological dig site right by the woods from his youth, and he’s managed to ditch his identity enough that he’s put on the case, along with his partner Cassie Maddox, who has some skeletons of her own kicking around the closet, although none that touch the case.
Nothing terribly original there, huh? Dead kids, detectives with pasts… its more or less familiar territory in this stripe of murder mystery. But author Tana French truly knows her craft, and she turns out a damn good tale, in large part because of the protagonists themselves. Ryan is a swiftly stumbling beautiful mess of a man, someone who has grabbed the brass ring he was dreaming off for so long, only to find himself face to face with something out of a previous life. He’s the sort of character that you ache for, even as you feel he ends up as he deserves. You feel terribly horrid for him, but you know, too, that if he’d done what he was supposed to, if he’d backed off, if he had had more nerve, it wouldn’t have to had turned out as it does. Maddox, too, is good; a fully-fledged character who has her own past issues, but has pretty much worked through them, who has figured out how to handle all the casual sexism flung her way from potential suspects to her own supervisor. And the pair has a solid relationship that is engrossing to observe. We want to know what happened to the murder victim, we want to know why her family seems so odd, but what we want to know most of all is what happens to our leads.
I’m not giving away anything, by the way, in making it clear that something goes horribly wrong in the course of the book. Narrator Ryan makes that obvious early on, and it lends the whole thing a melancholy air, it makes it hurt to keep reading. The last third of the book was a solid wall of pain for me, I felt absolutely gutted after I finished the last page. I can tell you the last time a book left me feeling gutted – and that’s the only word that is fixed solidly in mind, gutted – it was Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, and I was fourteen when I read that, almost eleven years ago (I never saw the movie, I knew I couldn’t handle it).
How else can I convince you to give this a go? This is a great book, a book that I ripped through in about two days, and that then sent me pelting headfirst through the other three books in the series (the next one stars Detective Maddox) in a week. If you like your murder mysteries with more meat and substance, this one is absolutely for you, but even if you aren’t generally into that genre, if you like a good read, here it is. Its the best book I’ve read all year, hands down, and I’ve read fifty-four books so far this year, several of them pretty damn good. Read this book.