In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad 1) by Tana French

A good debut…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

in the woodsIn 1984, three children went into the woods in Knocknaree. Only one returned, with blood – not his own – in his shoes, so traumatised he is never able to remember what happened. The other two children have never been found. That traumatised child is now a detective on the Murder Squad, Rob Ryan. And when another child is found murdered in Knocknaree, he and his partner Cassie are given the case.

I’ve heard so many people rave about Tana French that my expectations were very high going into this, and to some degree they were met. I freely admit that I might have given up within a few pages though, if I had heard nothing about the book. The prologue is one of the most overblown, over-written pieces of pure purple I’ve come across in crime writing, and I barely made it through. Happily, however, having got that out of her system, her writing settles down for the most part to a consistently high standard, only occasionally reverting to purple.

The plot is complex, with several possible motives for why Katy Devlin was murdered. Something about the family seems a bit off, leading the detectives to wonder if there are hidden secrets there. Katy’s father is leading a protest movement against a new road and has been threatened by unknown people if he continues, so it looks like there may be a thread of political corruption there. Katy seems to have left her house in the middle of the night, so there’s a question of whether she knew her murderer and if so how. Or is it possible that the crime is somehow linked back to the earlier tragedy in the woods? Rob knows he should make his boss aware of his links to the earlier crime and step down from the investigation, but he is desperate to be involved, hoping that somehow his memories will return and he will finally know the truth about what happened back then.

begorrathon 2016

The characterisation is excellent on the whole, not just of the main players, but of the team around Rob and Cassie, and of the various people they come across during the investigation. The one exception, and it’s an important one, is the character of Rob himself. Unfortunately, his voice sounded irredeemably feminine to me, not just in his constant focus on emotions and poetic descriptions of his partner Cassie’s many perfections, but in actual use of words. (The thought of a straight male Dublin police officer describing one of his straight male colleagues as looking ‘adorable’ actually made me laugh out loud.) However, the quality of the writing and plotting was high enough to mostly carry me over this weakness.

Tana French
Tana French

A more serious weakness is the sheer length of the book in relation to its content. At over 600 pages (according to Amazon – I had the unnumbered Kindle version myself), the book is seriously overpadded. I reckon it could have lost 200-300 pages and been the better for it. While the story of Rob’s attempts to regain his lost memories is intriguing, it becomes repetitive after a while, with great swathes of the book devoted to discussing the same event again and again with very little, if anything, being added each time. No matter how well written these digressions may be, they merely serve to make the thing go at a snail’s pace – an elderly snail, at that. Even when the main solution is revealed, the book goes on for a further nearly hundred pages tying everything up, or not, as the case may be. And, as many reviewers have pointed out with varying degrees of dissatisfaction, the resolution is partial, with a bit of spooky woo-woo not really providing a satisfactory reward for 600 pages worth of reader perseverance.

However, the strengths – quality of writing, plotting, characterisation – undoubtedly outweigh the weaknesses – excessive padding, occasional drifts into purple prose, failure to resolve a major plot line. As a debut it is good, and I look forward to reading more of her work to see how her style develops as she progresses.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

71 thoughts on “In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad 1) by Tana French

  1. Yikes!!! Will skip this one.
    I’ve noticed that many books these days seem overly long. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the authors aren’t edited as much (or complain if one word of their precious book is cut)?

  2. Really interesting review, FF. I have a copy of this on my shelf even though I don’t read much contemporary crime, as so many seem to rate Tana French. I’ll revise my expectations somewhat & it sounds like there’s still much to enjoy. I’m off now to read the purple prologue 🙂

    • Thanks! 🙂 She’s certainly a better writer than many in contemporary crime, and the problems with this one are the kinds of thing that often turn up in debuts. Despite my criticisms of it, it was ceratinly good enough to tempt me to read another…

    • Yes, I get the impression that the books get better as the series goes on, which isn’t unusual, of course. Certainly this was a good enough debut to tempt me to read another…

  3. I have a love/hate relationship with purple prose. I confess to loving it when it is done well, but more often that not it just isn’t. Overall it sounds a bit epic for me but I do like the premise of it and your review is, as ever, super.

    • Me too, and I can’t quite put my finger on why it sometimes works and sometimes makes me gag a bit. I think it depends on whether it feels as if it comes out of genuine emotion – this really felt like a writing exercise. But it got much better after the prologue, thank goodness – I couldn’t have taken 600 pages of it…

      • I don’t think I could take 600 pages of anything! Except maybe 600 chocolate pages 🙂 Most purple just comes across as some sort of GCSE coursework, I find. Which is probably just as well because that’s about my reading level.

        • Mmm… 600 chocolate pages sounds good! I don’t mind long books if the story justifies it, but so often it just turns into repetitive waffle. Haha! Yes, the more purple it gets, the younger the writer sounds, I find – that’s why I’m hoping it gets toned down in later books.

  4. I loved this book when I read it several years ago. And, at that time, reviews were very mixed. Many did not like the ending. I was OK with it. It was a bit long, but it was also a debut novel. I often make allowances when a writer is just beginning. I’ve read all Tana French’s other books as well and have liked some more than others. I’ve liked all of them, but a few are favorites. Her habit of taking a character from a previous book and putting the focus more on that person is a fun one – to me anyway. I particularly liked her 3rd book, FAITHFUL PLACE, and I did like her latest book, THE SECRET PLACE, a lot. Can’t wait for #6, which will come out in my part of the world in the fall. Nice, well-balanced review here. 🙂

    • It’s a rare debut that ever gets the full 5-stars from me – this came in at a level that would ceratinly tempt me to read another. I wasn’t too bothered about the ending but I did feel the spooky element was either not necessary or under-developed. I like the idea of a different central character each time. Michael Robotham tends to do that too, and I always think it allows for more character development and stops the books becoming stale. But I do wish that authors would be stricter with themselves on length…

  5. I know just what you mean about the length, FictionFan. I must admit that’s something that put me off, too. That said, though, I also think it’s a solid story. The plot’s well-done and I do like the characters. I like it that despite the length, etc., she doesn’t lose focus.

    • I think this one probably came out at just about the height of the craze for ridiculously overlong crime novels – I must check if her future books are a more reasonable length. You’re right, though – she does stay focussed throughout which helps. And I liked the plotting of the main story a lot, though I was disappointed she left the other thread hanging. A good debut, though!

  6. Between “adorable” uttered/thought by a straight man about another straight man, the dreadful prologue (which most are), and its length for a crime novel, I say “Good day, Sir!” But maybe I’m just feeling fussy this mornin’. Maybe I need chocolates.

    • I’m glad I stuck it out, but really, if so many people hadn’t said they loved her writing, I’d have given up before Chapter 1! Definitely worth reading though, and enough to tempt me to read another…

  7. Ouch. I think Now I happily spend time with Ms French. I think the fact you are intrigued, or at least, possibly willing to try later French’s and that added half star, means we can still speak. I love her purpling, which I appreciate. The French shade of purple is one I find appealing. Other purplers might have me tsking. It is all so much about whether the reader resonates to this person’s voice or not. And that is indefinable

    As a slight warning – all of her books are hefty. Clearly us fans settle down with our French housebricks with a sigh of deep satisfaction that we will be spending much reading time immersed

    Again, its down to voice. Some people you could listen to for hours, some, 5 minutes seems like a year. I’m on this latter with a science book, about a subject which interests me, but I was tutting and groaning in half a page. Not ENOUGH (or indeed, ANY) purple in it more’s the pity.

    • Indeed, re the resonating. I must admit when I got halfway through the prologue and was searching for my sick-bag I did wonder if I’d been the victim of a cruel Fancifull set-up. But fortunately the purple faded to a more delicate shade thereafter. Hmm… I must say, if all her books are as lengthy as this one, it might be quite some time before I feel like reading another. I don’t mind long if it’s Sansom and full of historical depth and political intrigue, but 600 pages, of which 300 or so are merely repeating the same thing in different words, does nothing for me, I fear. Because *gets ready to run* at the end of the day, this was a pretty basic crime novel – it said nothing new or intriguing about the ‘human condition’. And crime novels, in my opinion, should be primarily plot-driven – good characterisation, of course, but the plot should never take second place to the writing, as it did for most of this one. Lit-fic’s different – there the writing is imporatnt, but it should also be saying something kinda profound… the law according to FF! *…and runs*

      • Ah, so I see where a main part of our differences arise. Of course plot matters, but I think one reason I tend not to be drawn that much to genre itself, is because plot is more central in a lot of genre, and it’s the ‘plot driven’ rather than character driven aspects where I find my attention begins to slide. So that’s the law according to LF. And why i love French so much is because I think she is a lit ficcy writer, subject crime.

        But I would never play a cruel reading joke on you like that.

        Yet. Thinks about it for a bit. No, I wouldn’t. Not unless you’d broken in and stolen a girl’s chocolate stash. Or mysteriously added a whole pile of books to the TBR.

        Looks at the bedside table…I swear the pile has grown.

        Shame someone else got you to read War and Peace. Now PROUST, there’s a possibility. Even Ulysses. Which has been on my bookshelves, unopened for over half a life time. Though I do know it has fearsomely long sentences………..

        • Yes, I think that’s because you don’t really like genre fiction, whereas I do. And I’m really not looking for the same things from it as from lit-fic. To me genre fiction is something quick and light, and it’s only in the last decade or so that genre writers have been writing hugely long books (and misery-fests), which I feel don’t really work as genre. But I didn’t feel this was lit-ficcy – perhaps the later ones in the series are – since for me lit-fic has to have something more than good writing and characterisation. Actually I never think good writing alone is praiseworthy, beyond A-Level. I really only want to read books that have something to say – in genre, a good, exciting plot, and in lit-fic, something that makes me think. It’s a rare book that achieves both, though it’s fun when they do. This one had the good plot, but too much of the fol-de-rol show-offy writing. But it’s a debut, and they’re usually the weakest in a series…

          No, no, no – NOT PROUST!!! Even Ulysses sounds preferable to that!!

  8. I read this a few years ago and felt much the same way about it. Thinking back, I’m not entirely sure I finished it since I can’t recall the ending… After your review though, I want to try one of her other (shorter) books.

    • I get the horrible feeling that all her books may be mammoths – I did like her writing mostly and the bit of the plot she resolved, so I’ll probably try another, but oh, I do get tired of these overlong crime novels!

      • Hrm. I really don’t understand overlong crime novels. I have yet to see one with enough plot to justify the page count. I’ve always seen crime novels as shorter, tightly-plotted books that you should be able to easily finish in a couple sittings.

        • Totally agree! If I’m going to invest zillions of hours, I want to be reading something a bit more meaningful than yet another murder mystery. Crime novels are for light entertainment between heavy lit-fic, for me. The thing I read when I’m tired and my brain wants a rest…

  9. I read a few years ago and really loved. They do tend to veer more to character studies than crime investigation but I quite like that. Personally I loved book 2 (the likeness I think) the most but it probably gets the most criticism. I think it all comes down to whether you like the main character and I liked Cassie.

  10. I have read a later Tana French (I don’t mind reading series out of order) and the style seemed to have settled down, so probably a lot of the faults are debut-related. I want to try and read more by her, as I’ve heard so many describe her as one of the best crime writers to come out of Ireland.

    • I should really have started with a later one too – debuts often have issues that get sorted in later books. She certainly does have a huge and enthusiastic following and I liked enough about this one to want to try another – I’ll look and see which ones get the highest ratings rather than sticking slavishly to reading them in order…

  11. Yes, quite right. Us male fellows never say adorable. Maybe spicy instead. But never adorable. Just never. Never, ever. Maybe once in a while a boy might say that to his girlfriend, but I doubt it.

    Goodness. He either walked through a puddle of blood or got a foot whipping, I’m thinking.

    She’s got funny hair and she’s white, you know.

  12. Such a good review! I tried this for the same reasons that you mention… And I gave up twice before I had reached the middle of the book. My PhD supervisor LOVED it, she said it was something I had to read. Every blogger I admire loves French and the Dublin Murder Squad series. And it simply didn’t work for me. I think it was too slow, and I couldn’t be bothered with the family of the victim…

    • Thank you! Yes, I suspect it probably appears more to people who don’t read a lot of crime, because it’s so character-driven and wordy. Whereas I honestly like my crime novels to be mainly about plot – and shorter, usually. It’s interesting to see the different reactions to her style though – for me it was too purple, but many people seem to love it.

  13. There’s been some mixed reviews about this book but I enjoyed it. I think Rob Ryan intrigued me and that’s one reason it kept me reading. I also enjoyed her other book, The Likeness, and I hope you’ll enjoy this book more. 🙂

    • It did keep me reading too, once I’d got over the prologue. I thought she’s very talented and unfortunately (from my perspective) there’s a real trend towards over-padded crime novels recently. But I enjoyed it enough to want to try more of her stuff, and The Likeness seems to be the logical choice… 🙂

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