Click here to read reviewer Swapna Krishna's take on In the Woods.
French is a brilliant new talent, an Irish writer who combines a dramatic sense of place and history with a complicated mystery, her characters more complex and fascinating than the usual fare. When a twelve-year-old Knocknaree girl about to leave for formal ballet training is found murdered at a local archeological dig, Cassie Maddox and Rob Ryan of the Murder Squad take on a case filled with ambiguities.
One of the more troubling aspects of little Katy Devlinís murder is its possible connection with a case from twenty years earlier, when three twelve-year olds disappeared, only one of them located later, nearly catatonic, his shoes filled with blood. Jaimie and Peter have never been found, Adam long-since moved away from the area. To her surprise and dismay, Cassie learns that Rob Ryan is that boy found in the woods, the fates of his friends never resolved.
Now a detective, Rob has returned to the nightmarish scene of his childhood trauma, hoping no one will identify him. But since another victim has been claimed by the same woods, and Cassie and Rob are assigned the case, either Rob will be an asset to the investigation or an obstacle. Maddox and Ryan have made a perfectly balanced pairing as partners on the Murder Squad, finely attuned to one anotherís instincts, enjoying an exceptional relationship that shields both from the ugly realities of their work.
Considering Robís secret history, Cassie worries about the implications for the investigation, but Ryan begs his partner to say nothing, promising to remain objective. There will be more complications if the current murder is linked to the missing children from two decades prior. Meanwhile, an intensive search begins, encompassing the site where the body was found, the people involved in the archeological dig (and a political movement to bulldoze the site for a new road), Katyís family, friends, teachers and the usual details that comprise building a case.
Frenchís protagonists are intimate with tedious police procedures in solving crimes - the gathering of evidence, records, interviews with neighbors, no detail too small to determine the identity of a killer. Meanwhile, Maddox and Ryan unwind after long hours, spending evenings in Cassieís small apartment where late-night discussions yield new avenues of investigation in an increasingly frustrating case.
What makes Frenchís novel so fascinating is the complex layering of psychological dynamics, the intimacy of partnership, and a growing suspicion that something is very wrong in Katy Devlinís family. Rob is increasingly unable to remain objective, assaulted by fragments of memory from his past. The truth of that day is locked somewhere in Robís subconscious, vague memories without context.
Ultimately the past is inextricably linked to Katyís murder, Rob unable to control his imagination or his fears even as the team focuses on two particular individuals. In harrowing exchanges with Cassie, Rob cannot contain his emotional reactions, the partnersí hard-won intimacy brutalized by angry words as the final suspects reveal a shocking disregard for the life of a twelve-year-old girl. Flawed humanity is exposed for its tenuous rationalizations as the case is resolved, but not without the wreckage of a charmed friendship as collateral damage.