After presenting an idyllic scene of summer past in which three children play, the prologue ends chillingly with the words…
“These children will not be coming of age, this or any other summer. This August will not ask them to find hidden reserves of strength and courage as they confront the complexity of the adult world and come away sadder and wiser and bonded for life. This summer has other requirements for them.”
The prologue is slightly deceiving for, in fact, one child does come back. He is found–his trainers (sneakers) covered with blood–with no memory of what happened in the woods that fateful day. He will grow up and become a police detective in Dublin, Ireland, and he will face a case that drudges up that long ago summer.
As narrator, Detective Rob Ryan is up front in telling us, “What I want to warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation of deception.” In other words, beware the unreliable narrator…
Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox, the lone female detective on the murder squad, catch “the Devlin case on a Wednesday morning in August.” They drive out to Knocknaree. There, at an archaeological site where the woods once stood, a young girl’s body is found. It’s not long before Ryan realizes there may be a connection to his own past.
“I was working a case that looked like it might be connected to that one, but to be frank I never for a second considered doing it. It would have gotten me booted off the case–you are very definitely not allowed to work on anything where you might be emotionally involved–and probably questioned all over again about that day in the wood, and I failed to see how this would benefit either the case or the community in general.”
Whatever his motives, keeping quiet and staying on the case is a mistake that will cost him.
Ryan’s childhood friends, Jamie Rowan and Peter Savage, disappeared all those years ago when they were twelve years old. No trace of them was ever found, but at the dig site, the police find a hairclip on a Bronze age sacrificial altar. One like Jamie would have worn. Ryan’s later able to determine it matches the description in the cold case file of his missing friends.
Ryan also quickly learns that the girl, Katy Devlin, found dead at the dig site is the daughter of someone he once knew. Ryan and his friends witnessed a teenage Jonathan Devlin and two other boys have sex with a local girl, not realizing at the time what the saw may have been a rape.
Could Jonathan or his buddies have been responsible for what happened to Ryan and his two friends? After all, how could one person have subdued three children together?
When Cassie questions if he should be working the case, Ryan tells his partner, “I want to work this one, Cass.” But the locked away memories of that fateful summer begin to resurface and cloud his judgement. Ryan sees, “Every coincidence felt like a sea-worn bottle slammed down on the sand at my feet, with my name engraved neatly on the glass and inside a message in some mockingly indecipherable code.”
Are the two cases even connected? If not, will Adam Robert Ryan find the closure he needs?
As narrator, Ryan is surprising erudite for someone who, as he explains, did not attend university. However, he does inform us that he spent a year reading the classics; a literary self-education that allows for such prose in his narration.
French’s novel plays out much like a cross between a police procedural and a psychological thriller. There are even noir elements rounding out this complex story. Though the beginning may be slow going for some, by the end, readers will have come to know Rob and Cassie and want to know more about them and their colleagues in the fictional Dublin Murder Squad.
In the Woods won just about every award for best first novel in 2008, including the Edgar, Macavity, and Anthony. Cassie and other characters continue in French’s follow up novels, The Likeness and Faithful Place.