November 09, 2009

Two for One: IN THE WOODS and THE LIKENESS by Tana French

I’ve never been much for mysteries or thrillers. Aside from the odd Alexander McCall-Smith or Agatha Christie novel (and a brief obsession with Helter Skelter – though I suppose that would be categorized more as True Crime), I have had very little experience with the genre. What drew me to French’s novels (In the Woods first, followed by The Likeness) was their Dublin setting. I’m a sucker for anything Irish, a pseudo-weakness that really worked out in my favor here. Both novels, which are related without quite being a series, center around the attempts to solve mysterious murders. The books, however, are not so much about the crimes themselves as they are psychological explorations of the detectives and their unexpected personal connections to these murders. With both books, French effortlessly weaves through literary genres and creates, with her unique characters and stories, works that are engrossing and difficult to classify.

In the Woods follows a case assigned to Detective Rob Ryan that unexpectedly leads him and his partner towards two decade-spanning murders. As a young boy, Ryan and his two best friends disappeared into the woods of a small town outside of Dublin. Hours later he alone was found – catatonic and uninjured, yet with a torn shirt and blood-filled shoes. Twenty years later, he still has no memory of those hours and his friends have never been found. As he attempts to solve the murder of a young girl in the very same woods, Ryan is forced to revisit his past and face what he fears most – his untapped memories. Though the mysteries of both murders are gripping (I was up until ungodly hours while reading this book), what is most powerful is seeing how the case personally and psychologically impacts all involved. French explores – with Ryan especially – the impact of memory on the psyche, the transient nature of human relationships, and the ability of the subconscious to determine our actions. As first person narrator, we see everything through Ryan’s eyes. Over the course of the case it becomes apparent what an unreliable observer he has become – he veers all over the place, from likable to unlikable, trustworthy to deceitful. French’s characterization of him, however, skillfully makes this unreliability part of his nature. These paradoxes, instead of being problematic, reinforce the latent effects of his past and directly lead to the troubles of his present.

I especially loved (of course) the Irish setting of the book. It wasn’t just, however, that the story itself took place in and around Dublin (or the fact that she often mentioned places and pubs I used to frequent when I studied abroad); French draws in so many ways from her Irish literary and cultural background. Throughout the book, and in The Likeness as well, hints of mysticism and the supernatural are always quietly present – rarely spoken of, but always there. These folkloric traditions that are so intrinsic to the Irish mindset – from the titular importance of the woods to the mystical undercurrents that are often invoked to explain unspeakable crimes – meet the characters at every twist and turn. And to think, this was French’s first novel.

Her second novel certainly didn’t disappoint – I liked The Likeness just as much as In the Woods, if not more. It picks up after the events of the first novel and follows Detective Cassie Maddox, Ryan’s partner. Several other incidental characters make appearances, but this is essentially Cassie’s book. Following her switch from Murder to Domestic Violence, she finds herself thrust into a bizarre undercover murder investigation with the discovery of the body of a young woman in the outskirts of Dublin. The circumstances that bring Cassie into the investigation are even more bizarre: besides looking nearly identical to her, this dead woman shares the name of Cassie’s former undercover persona, Lexie Madison. How often does one get to use the term ‘doppelganger’ in such a perfect context? As Cassie inhabits Lexie’s life (rules and ethics be damned), she is pulled into a strange world. She studies Literature as a postgraduate student at Trinity while inhabiting the eccentric Victorian-like lifestyle Lexie shared with her four very closely-knit (often strikingly so) housemates in their manor home in the country. As she tries to solve the puzzle of Lexie’s life (who was she really, and how did she get the name Lexie Madison?) and death while continuing to convince the housemates that she is indeed Lexie, Cassie gets increasingly drawn into this new strangely enticing world.

As we saw (though to a lesser extent) in In the Woods, Cassie is a strong character: smart and tough – perfect as a hard-ass detective – yet with personal vulnerabilities that, though they help her with the finer points of profiling and catching a killer, also slowly erode her mental stability in a case as complex as this. As with In the Woods, French explores the psychological effects of this case on Cassie. The more she settles into Lexie’s life, the more she becomes her – at the expense of her own life. Though we know better, we as readers fall into the same trap. I could see the mistakes Cassie was making in failing to distance herself from the case and suspects, yet I understood why she made these mistakes. Lexie and her housemates’ lives – with their deep camaraderie, endless poetry, philosophical discussions, constantly flowing whiskey, and magical country environs – is near irresistible. I was pulled into this strange world right along with Cassie, even as her inability to distance herself puts the case, the knowledge of what happened to Lexie, and Cassie herself in danger. As Cassie attempts to balance this lifestyle with solving the murder while undercover, the suspense of The Likeness kicks in and keeps you reading until you get answers.

By the time I finished both books, I felt as drained as the detectives solving these crimes. I got so wrapped up in them that I began to see everything as potentially dangerous or as a mystery that needed to be solved (I know now why I don’t read books like this more often). Aside from the skilled storytelling and accomplished writing of both books, I respect that French didn’t always feel the need to tie things up neatly at the end of the book. Some mysteries – small and large – are left unsolved, details are left vague, and questions are left unanswered (though, for the most part, not frustratingly so). This is an extension of something she manages to do throughout her books: to ground her stories in reality, somehow making the bizarre and sometimes unbelievable aspects of the stories plausible. I’m excited for the release of her next book (whenever that will be), whether it features Detectives Ryan and Maddox or not.


  1. Great review! I can't wait to sink my teeth into In the Woods (and The Likeness when I'm done). They both sound awesome.

  2. Lianne, I really enjoyed your review of these books. I've read both and am also a big Tara French fan. I probably have a slight preference for In the Woods - The Likeness tested my ability to suspend my disbelief - but both were great reads. I, too, look forward to reading more of French's work.

  3. Thanks so much - glad to hear more people enjoy her books! Erin, I cant wait for you to read it...I made sure to do my best to avoid spoilers just in case you read my review.