One Summer night, two decades ago, three missing children: Peter, Jamie and Adam. For them, the woods that reach around Knocknaree have been a home away from home. They've picnicked in the ruins of an dilapidated old castle, made mischief in their favourite clearing, but they're almost in their teens; adult enough, at least, to understand that change is in the air. Jamie's mother is about to send her to boarding school, and the children know that her looming absence will mean the end of the precious bond that ties them together. They take to the woods. It's as easy a decision for them as A, B, C.
As day draws on and the evening gives way to a forbidding darkness, the police are called in to comb through the forest. After hours of searching, aided by townspeople and fearful parents, they find only Adam, catatonic against a tree. His shirt has two appalling tears through it; his shoes are sodden, black with blood. He survives, but his memory fails. Ryan grows up an amnesiac, unable to remember anything about the night his innocence was stolen – along, presumably, with the lives of his closest friends.
This snapshot of a countryside idyll shattered in an awful instant is only the beginning of something greater, but the intrusion of horror on normalcy informs much of Irish-born author Tana French's astonishing debut. Harrowing and haunting, to dismiss In The Woods as mere genre fiction is to the miss the point entirely.
Its principle character is indeed a detective: Adam Robert Ryan, all grown up – going now by his middle name but no closer to the truth of that fateful night. The narrative, too, is driven in large part by an investigation that bears striking similarities to the events he has done so much to distance himself from – the disappearance and tragic death of a young girl, Katy: an aspiring ballet-dancer whose hopes and dreams are forfeit for the sake of some sick scheme. She's the daughter of a local man who's been making noise about the development of a motorway through Knocknaree, so naturally there's no shortage of corruption and conspiracy to navigate. Where In The Woods sets itself apart from the by-the-numbers books that its genre is unfortunately rife with is in its clever use of some fairly standard devices. At each turn French is positively gleeful in her subversion of our expectations. There is, perhaps, something of Christopher Nolan's oft-acclaimed Memento in the way the author turns insignificances and asides on their head to embellish new meanings upon them. She's meticulous in her documentation, but restrained enough that she never so much as startles the flow of the story; her sense of pacing is excellent, her plotting precise and yet elegant.