How many conventions can a crime novel break and still be satisfying for genre fans? How can an author make up for or even prepare the reader for the sting of flouting deeply-held expectations?
The Writer Unboxed Breakout Novel Dissection (BND) crew discussed this at length regarding Tana French’s debut novel, In The Woods. We are a Facebook book club for writers; four times a year we choose a breakout novel to take apart using questions derived from Donald Maass’s craft books. This novel’s ending inspired some passionate negative reactions, yet it has sold over 1 million copies and in 2008 won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author, the Barry Award for Best First Novel, the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery Novel, and the Anthony Award for Best First Novel. While may have done one thing very wrong, she gave us:
- a stellar example of an unreliable narrator;
- well-drawn and distinctive characters (both major and minor) with vivid internal lives;
- turning points that pull a lot of weight.
We will explore the writerly lessons we learned from In The Woods here, but we cannot do so without revealing spoilers. While this is a crime/mystery novel that came out in 2008, we understand that not everyone has read it. If you do not want to know whodunit or anything about the ending, stop right now, read the novel, and come back to add your voice to the discussion. Because I’m going to get into that unsatisfying/genre convention flouting/enraging ending right away, which is a major spoiler. Seriously. If you don’t stop now, you only have yourself to blame.
The hook for this novel was good, and drew in many of us who are not regular crime readers: Rob Ryan, a 35-year-old Murder Squad detective is assigned the case of a 12-year-old girl murdered in the woods at the edge of a housing estate in a village on the outskirts of Dublin, but he doesn’t tell his captain or anyone else but his partner that he was the sole survivor of a mysterious crime in that same woods. When Rob was 12, he and his two best friends, a boy and a girl, spent the day in the woods as they often did, but that night, only Rob was found clinging to a tree, his shoes full of blood which may or may not have been his, with no memory of what happened; his friends were never found.
So Rob and his partner Cassie Maddox deal with two crimes simultaneously: one in the present and one in the past. Rob remembers more and more snippets of that summer and of that day; sometimes they seem like they illuminate something in the current case, and we find out more about the people in the story, and other times they’re frustrating for both the reader and Rob because he’s not getting any closer to what happened in either case.
Rob solves the case of who murdered 12-year-old Katy Devlin, but we never learn what happened to him in the woods.
After hundreds of pages of build-up, of tension, of compassion for him as a young boy, for him as a man who buried even the idea that that childhood event affected him, after watching him wreck everything good in his life in the tangled pursuit of the current murderer and of any shred of truth about his childhood mystery, the reader is left with nothing. As is Rob.
We used words like disappointment, unsatisfying, annoying, disorienting, mad, and betrayed to describe how we felt. To help us see the ending in a new way, Elissa Field shared an interview in which Vulture describes French this way: “Tana French is an author of murder mysteries who is less concerned with whodunit than with the inner lives of her detectives.”
Jan O’Hara picked up on this and floated the argument that we were so disappointed because French was doing something new and we were unprepared for it:
“I think our collective disorientation at the end comes with the idea that this was a crime novel (A story) which presented an opportunity for a character to grow from a childhood trauma (B story). As such, the ending felt anticlimactic and out of order.
But French intended this to be a story about a failed chance to overcome childhood trauma (A story) with a B story of a crime novel. You’ll notice the story begins with a flashback and concludes with a very interior passage concluding his personal arc. Most of the crime novel consequences are *told* to us in summative form, like an epilogue. If you think of this as a literary novel with crime elements, that works, but I think the expectations about that needed to be clearer…. Either that, or we, as readers, need more experience with inversion of priorities in crime novels, and then we won’t bat an eye.”
Barbara Morrison interpreted the ending in an interesting way:
“I never thought Rob was actually trying to discover what happened to Jamie and Peter, so I never expected closure on that. I thought he was trying to discover his childhood self, so he could become an integrated person–an adult even, as we’ve talked about emotional age stopping at a trauma. And of course he failed at that, so much so that it felt like closure.”
These ideas mollified some of our ire, but on our last day we ask, “If you had been the editor, what one thing would you have had the author change about the book?” and the change the majority of us recommended had to do with the ending, and only one person couldn’t see the book ending any other way.
So let’s explore those aspects of craft that French so excelled at that she could leave us dissatisfied but still so enthralled with her work that several of us immediately picked up the next book in the Dublin Murder Squad series.
Unreliable to the nth degree
Rob introduces himself as a liar: “What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with the truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.” He likes to think of himself as the Hero, as a detective out of central casting (he literally says this about himself), and that’s the kind of thing they’d say in an introduction to make themselves sound cool and in charge. We expect, therefore, that Rob will lie to other characters and, by extension, to the reader, but the worst of it is that Rob lies to himself.
Yes, he lies to other characters: he doesn’t tell his captain or any of his coworkers, other than Cassie, that he was the victim of a crime in the same woods. He’s arranged his life to keep that secret (changed his first name, lost his Irish accent through schooling in England), and even when, in the course of his job, he interviews people he knew as a child, he doesn’t give away his true identity.
But his past increasingly haunts the present case until he can no longer see clearly, lying to himself about his true motivations and feelings, lying to himself about trusted friends’ and colleagues’ motivations and feelings, and lying to himself about his ability to spot a liar. His job performance suffers, he breaks his friendship with Cassie (which until that point was one of the very best things about the book), and winds up utterly alone. This was not the character arc we expected with that cute, “I’m a detective so I’m a liar” opening.
Elissa Field pointed out,
“Even though lots of police procedural/thrillers include psychological development of the character and often exploration of the detectives’ personal weaknesses, French is unusual, almost literary in the fact she’s almost more interested in pulling apart the detective’s brokenness than in solving the mystery.”
French pulls apart Rob’s brokenness with unrelenting skill, exposing the depths of his unreliableness as a narrator–but, crucially, a narrator who is still able to reveal the truth of other characters.
Well-drawn and distinctive characters
Even though In The Woods is written in first person from Rob’s point of view (POV), because he is a professional asker of questions and a close observer of body language, many other characters in the story get to reveal themselves.
Because of Rob and Cassie’s chattiness, we get to know so much about the friendship between them. They work the case together all day, and then have dinner at Cassie’s every night to decompress and to talk over more philosophical aspects of the case. Cassie tells very personal stories about her experiences with a psychopath, with a child molester. We get the sense that Rob knows her. Alisha Rohde found this nugget of observation:
“Rob is always interpreting what he sees, and the tension comes from that process. (Example, observing Cassie: ‘There were dark shadows under her eyes; I realized suddenly that her afternoon with Kiernan had hit her hard, and that her reluctance to tell the story might not have been just for my sake. There is a specific tiny compression to the corners of her mouth when she is holding something back, and I wondered what Kiernan had told her that she wasn’t saying.’ p. 159)”
Barbara Morrison said, “I’m fascinated by how much French is able to convey of Cassie’s shifting evaluation of Rob. Cassie says hardly anything about the changes in Rob, but we get her looks, other actions, choices she makes about which task to work on and with whom, etc.”
We even get to see some minor characters through the point of view of multiple characters and over time. John Kelley appreciated this:
“I always enjoy in books (and in my own writing, for that matter) when a character who ‘doesn’t have direct say’ gets an opportunity to share their own story. I think those can be very powerful for opening up the story to wider themes, and connecting with readers. It certainly did so in this novel, not only with Cassie and to a lesser degree with Sam but also with many members of the village, even minor characters.”
At one point, Rob remembers him and his friends watching a teenage girl (Sandra) being raped in the woods; one of the characters in the current investigation took part, so he and Cassie pursue it. We find out about Sandra’s story from two of the perpetrators, Rob then, Rob now, Cassie, and Sandra herself–and in the process we get to know the two perpetrators (past and present), Rob (past and present), Cassie, and get some insights into the small town culture of Knocknaree in the mid-1980s. And French put in this level of detail for many minor characters.
Having so many well-drawn, distinctive characters who we felt we knew so well, even though the novel was told through a limited POV, made the story feel very rich and multi-layered–and made it easier for French to distract the reader with details that feel important, but aren’t.
Turning points as red herrings and more
Every turning point impacts Rob’s internal struggle (whether we interpret that as his struggle to integrate his childhood trauma into his adult self or find out what happened) and the current murder investigation. So many turning points are red herrings that open a new tear in Rob’s brokenness and point him towards the wrong murderer. As Elissa Field said, “It’s typical to have turning points (and red herrings) in mystery, but her characters’ turning points often hinge on increasing exposure of a point of weakness that the case keeps peeling back.”
One of the big turning points was Rob’s meltdown and total failure on the stand when he had to testify in court regarding an earlier case he’d worked on the beating murder of an old woman. Rob finally had to admit to himself that he was truly losing it–that things were not going well inside his head. But at the same time, his reflections gave him a fresh memory of that summer when he was 12, which led to the red herring of the rape of Sandra.
Turning points that make life more difficult for the character in every way, leading the main character in the wrong direction emotionally, and the reader and detectives in the wrong direction empirically–downright masterful. (You can read what French has to say about crafting red herrings here.)
Our top takeaways
In The Woods is an excellent book to study:
- if you want to see how to both exceed and flout genre expectations;
- if you want to explore how unreliable a narrator can be while still revealing a great deal about themselves and about everyone else in the story;
- if you want to learn how to make turning points simultaneously twist the emotional knife for your character and complicate the plot.
French’s writing is vibrant and stunning in a way we can’t copy (“mad crazy skills in the voice department” was how Jan O’Hara put it), but we must acknowledge that it’s one of the factors in how she could craft an ending that left so many readers so dissatisfied yet that didn’t impact her passionate following or her sales one bit.
Have you read In The Woods? Do you want to say something about the novel that hasn’t been said here? If you’ve read it, put on your editor hat and answer this: What one thing would you have had French change about the book? If you haven’t read it, can you recommend a book that shares the strengths the Breakout Novelist Dissection group identified?
Does this kind of discussion sound like fun to you? We have a great time and would love to have more people join us over on Facebook. We’re dissecting Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale from April 11-17.