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.