Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent reading: Some books should come with a warning label

By which I mean, at least this time, books in which the bad guy wins. And I don’t mean a charming bad guy such as, say, Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder or Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos. No. I mean a real bad guy, the kind where it’s an offense against the universe when they win.

I also mean the sort of books in which the good guy loses. I mean really loses, so that his life is thoroughly screwed up at the end. Worse: the sort of story where the good guy does it to himself, so that you, as the reader, can see everything going wrong while the protagonist’s mistakes pile up and then come crashing down on him and everyone around him with all the power and inevitability of a tsunami.

Don’t tell me real life is sometimes like that. If I wanted to read stories like that, I could read current news or ancient history or whatever.

So. I picked up IN THE WOODS, a debut novel by Tana French that came out several years ago, at a recent book sale. Here’s what the back cover copy says: “. . . three children leave their small Dublin neighborhood to play in the surrounding woods. Hours later, their mother’s calls go unanswered. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children, gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
“Twenty years later, Detective Rob Ryan – the found boy, who has kept his past a secret – and his partner Cassie Maddox investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl in the same woods. No, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him, and that of his own shadowy past.”

My tolerance for horror is fairly low, but I sometimes do like suspense and crime dramas, and I often like cop books, and this book was an Edgar Award finalist, and I liked the cover. So I read the first couple of pages. Here’s the first paragraph, to give you an idea:

“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping chants, One! two! three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.”

Okay, I’d call that promising, wouldn’t you? The second sentence got me. Beautiful! And then the rest of the paragraph: setting is very important to me in mysteries, and this story, set in Ireland, looks like it will be perfect. Just exotic enough to be appealing without being challenging. I may not know what Marie biscuits are or what a BMX wind is, but not knowing stuff like that isn’t going to bother me a bit.

And the writing here is top-notch. That part is undeniable. But I started to see the trend toward the protagonist’s life unraveling pretty early, and though the writing was good enough to keep me going, I definitely took a gooood step back emotionally and wound up not being very emotionally engaged with the characters. Which was wise. Because this author really ticked me off. And it’s not just because of the ending where the bad guy gets away with murder, and worse than murder, and is clearly going to go on destroying people’s lives for the foreseeable future. It’s also because of the way we get to that ending.

First, French provides one of the very, very few true nonsexual friendships between a man and a woman in all of fiction – Ryan and his partner Maddox. How often do you EVER see that? The author does it so well, the relationship comes across as totally believable. Then . . . well, then the author throws sex back in there after all and that relationship gets completely, irretrievably screwed up. I’m not saying this isn’t believable. Ryan’s all messed up because of his personal history, and although I don’t totally get his reactions with regard to this relationship with his partner, fine, I can believe he might possibly react the way he did. But I hate it. And I hate what it puts his partner through, and I hate where Ryan himself ends up.

Not only that, but Ryan’s personal history? The bit about being found gripping a tree trunk with his shoes full of blood? You see how the back cover copy invites you to believe that Ryan is going to figure out what actually happened to himself and his two friends when they were kids? And that unraveling that old mystery is going to be connected to the current murder? Well: sorry to spoil this for you if you were going to rush out and buy this book, but no.

There are hints about supernatural weirdness, probably evil supernatural weirdness, connected with those woods and that old disappearance. But in fact those hints stay completely unexplained. We never find out what really happened. Those shoes full of blood, a distinctly weird and creepy image the author rather dwells on? We never find out about those. We don’t even find out whose blood it was! Was it the blood of the two kids who disappeared? Don’t know, could be! Why was there blood in the shoes and nowhere else? We have no idea. Is there a connection between the old disappearance and the current crime? You’d think so, right? But if there was supposed to be such a connection, it was so subtle and mystical that I missed it.

And then the bad guy won.

I don’t care how good the writing was. I won’t be coming back for Tana French’s second book.

Here’s the Goodreads page for IN THE WOODS.

I particularly recommend Matt Sommer’s review, which is the second one down. Yeah, what he said. There’s an interesting comment in his thread, that Ryan himself may be supposed to be a sociopath and that he himself killed his friends. I don’t think I buy it, but it’s certainly an interesting idea. I think we see enough relatively normal emotions in his head to rule out that he his himself sociopathic, and I don’t *think* he killed his friends. But I don’t know. If you’re into psychological mysteries, hey, maybe you’d like to read this one after all and see what you think.

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2 Comments Recent reading: Some books should come with a warning label

  1. Ann

    My . . . there’s a book I shall certainly not be reading. Though I must agree with you on the writing: the first paragraph is so beautifully written, it just draws you into the words and lets you dwell in that scene for a moment before the story begins.
    But . . . yeah, no.

  2. Rachel

    I know, right? I really enjoyed it until I realized the direction it was heading; then I started skimming despite the great writing. I shouldn’t say I feel cheated by the book, since I only paid fifty cents for it . . . but I feel cheated by the book. Nothing that starts beautifully should end like that!

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