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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
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Review: In The Woods

In the Woods by Tana French. Viking. 2007. Library copy. Holiday reads — a grown up book to read over the holidays.

The Plot: 1984, a summer day, a Dublin suburb. Three twelve year olds, Germaine (Jamie), Peter, and Adam, go in the woods to play. They don’t come home. Adam alone is found; slash marks on his back, blood in his sneakers, no memories of what happened.

Twenty years later, the body of Katy Devlin, twelve, is found, near the woods where the children disappeared years ago. Police detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox investigate. By Katy’s body they find a clue: an old barrette. Jamie’s, the missing girl from decades before. It’s not the only link to the earlier crime.

Rob Ryan is Adam. Grown up, change of name, even a change of accent from the schools his parents sent him to to keep him out of the public eye. Rob Ryan, who despite his lack of memories of that fateful day is determined to not just solve the crime of Katy’s murder but also that of his missing friends.

The Good: A deliciously good, ice-chilling mystery. This is Rob’s story, and he is a storyteller, knowing just what to tell us and when. “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception.” The reader is warned, but there are surprises to be had.

The setting is Dublin; and I’m a mystery lover who likes mysteries set in other countries. Having visited Ireland more than once, some descriptions of towns and landmarks were familiar, which is an added bonus for me.

I loved the multiple mysteries going on here: the present one, the murder of young Katy; and past one, the disappearances of the twelve year olds. There is added twist that Adam/Rob is the narrator, someone who should have the most information to share yet who suffers amnesia for the time he and his friends went missing. Rob also has incomplete remembrances of his childhood before that time, so he’s lost not just his two friends but the friendship they shared as well. When thoughts of that time period are shared, I was reminded of Stephen King and when he writes about childhood friendship: the magic, the fierceness, the loyalty. Some of this is then oddly mirrored in the working dynamics in the present between Rob, Cassie, and a third police colleague working on the case.

Rob is also not always honest with himself or the reader; he reveals information in dribs and drabs. By the end of the book, I wasn’t quite sure what to think about him, except that I felt sorry for him, both the child Adam and the adult Rob. The mystery of In The Woods is as much about who Rob is and why as it is about the dead and missing children.

For the Katy mystery, I made some correct guesses about what had happened to her. For me, mysteries work for different reasons, and while sometimes I read to be surprised by whodoneit other times I read a book as if it’s a puzzle, to see if I can figure it out with or before the investigators. So, that I made some correct deductions meant that the book worked and I felt smart. Where I was surprised in the story? By what happened to the grownup characters, Cassie and Rob. For the Jamie, Peter, and Adam mystery, I’ll reserve my thoughts for the comments. That way those who don’t want to be spoiled, won’t, but those who need to discuss it, can.

I read this using my phone as an ereader. It’s not a way I’d want to read all my books, but it was nice to have a book on my phone for when I wanted a book to read and  hadn’t brought one.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. I really liked IN THE WOODS, but I loved the next book in the series THE LIKENESS. More Cassie!!

  2. Lenore, this is my first year in a while not on an ALA selection committee for books so more time for reading adult books — looking forward to THE LIKENESS>

  3. Absolutely love Tana French’s writing. Of her three mysteries – I consider this one the “unsolved” one because of the loose ends with Rob’s past, but, still, love the ambiguity of it. As for Cassie & Rob, their phone call at the end – it’s been about 3 years since I’ve read it and thinking about it now still breaks my heart. Also, I gave this to a mature high school senior just a few days ago. I’m anxious to see how she likes it.