Three 12-year-old children go into an Irish woodland in a 1980s summer. Their youthful joy quickly turns to terror, with two of them vanishing, presumed dead, leaving Adam Ryan catatonic, shoes filled with someone else’s blood, and slashes down the back of his t-shirt. It’s a tantalising beginning, but this mystery is not the focus of this effective, twisty crime novel, even if it lurks everpresent in the background like a pagan dream.
The real story starts 20 years later. Adam, now going by Rob, is a detective in the Dublin police force’s murder squad. He and his partner Cassie Maddox are assigned to the murder of Katy Devlin, whose body was found on a Bronze Age sacrificial altar at an archaeological site that is being surveyed ahead of a motorway development. The kicker is that Katy was also 12, and found in the same place where Rob’s friends disappeared. Could the two cases be linked? Suspects proliferate: the father who is protesting the motorway; sexual predators; pagan devil-worshippers; the developers with dodgy links to politicians; the archaeologists. Although I was initially put off by the narrator’s insistence that this is an authentic crime novel (with meta references to X Files and the “casting room” no less) it eventually won me over with a gripping plot and rich characters and setting.
Rob, as narrator, warns at the start that detectives routinely lie to gain information. Dishonesty, it turns out, is not his primary flaw. His is a moving portrayal of trauma and its impact on the mind. After the disappearance of his friends, his family moved and he was sent to boarding school, where he developed the English accent that marks him as an outsider. His memory is shot through with holes and as the investigation progresses his mental state worsens. While his decision to take on a case that he may or may not have a personal link requires a fair suspension of disbelief, French makes the most of his questionable decision.
Rob’s real blindspot is his attitude to women. On describing meeting his partner Cassie he says, “I fell in love with her. The oversized raincoat made her look about eight”, and it only gets worse from there. Later he slut-shames Britney Spears and other blonde women, stating his taste is more “Scarlett” (so your typical white beauty standards?). His banter with his partner, the only woman on the squad, is full of low-brow sexist slights like “help! I’m being oppressed! … call the equality commission”. While he professes to be blindsided when he and Cassie hook up in one of the book’s less pleasing but inevitable narrative decisions, issuing the standard whiney refrain of “why can’t men and women just be friends?!”, he then treats her appallingly, giving her the cold shoulder and silent treatment because feelings. So misogynistic is Rob that he was my first suspect, which I still think would have a more daring and interesting conclusion.
But the actual resolution flips how the this misogyny is received, examining how Rob’s and other men’s prejudice leads them to underestimate women with catastrophic results. At one point Rob and Cassie undermine a suspect by acting out a pantomime of corporate sexism; he falls for it shockingly easily. The most complicated chapter comes at the book’s core, with Rob interrogating Katy’s father about a sexual assault he committed when he was a teenager. Rather than a victim’s perspective, we get the perpetrator’s, and the result is a chilling and distilled portrait of rape culture. While the vast majority of violent crime is committed by men and women do not make up claims of sexual assault, In The Woods flirts with both; it lives in the outliers and the lurid. Sometimes this comes at the expense of the female characters, but that is perhaps inevitable with a male narrator.
Although sometimes strained, I enjoyed French’s descriptive writing, particularly of the titular woods:
It was like stumbling into the wreck of some great ancient city. The trees swooped higher than cathedral pillars; the wrestled for space, propped up great fallen trunks, leaned with the slope of the hill: oak, beech, ash, others I couldn’t name.
Throughout the novel there’s a powerful sense of not just history, but deep time, and there’s just a hint of something deliciously occult, or at least inexplicable:
All these private, parallel dimensions, underlying such an innocuous little estate; all these self-contained worlds layered onto the same space. I thought of the dark strata of archaeology underfoot; of the fox outside my window, calling out to a city that barely overlapped with mine.
The novel also has plenty to say about the present. There are asides on Irish politics, the two major parties “which occupy identical self-satisfied positions on the far right” – and don’t we all know that feeling? There are celebrations of the “the guerilla cunning of the colonised” and we get a great sense of what Rob and Cassie enjoy about their work.
Gay rating: not gay.