Jefferson Chase looks at a crime thriller that does it by the book.
The phrase “police procedural” refers to crime stories that focus on the mechanics of how police carry out their investigations.In the wrong hands, the results are like a technical manual. But as done by someone like Tana French, whose 2007 debut novel In the Woods became an international bestseller, the procedure merges with atmosphere and character in a riveting fashion.The crime here is the (possibly ritual) murder of a young girl at an archaeological dig near Dublin, but half of the novel is devoted to describing the working relationship between the two lead detectives, the narrator Bob Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox.In my memory, we spent a million nights in Cassie’s flat... I’m sure there must have been days when one or another of us was off doing something else; but over time those evenings have coloured the whole season for me, like a brilliant dye flowering slowly through water... We would have wine with dinner, move on to whiskey in various forms afterward; when we started to get tipsy, we would pack the case file away and kick off our shoes and put on music and talk.But the friendship between the cops isn’t nearly as idyllically chummy as this passage.Ryan himself is the survivor of a murder incident that happened at almost the same site 20 years ago. Are the two incidents linked?The problem for Ryan is he can’t remember much of his own childhood tragedy.I suppose the whole thing must have had its effects on me, but it would be impossible – and to my mind pointless – to figure out exactly what they were. I was twelve, after all, an age at which bewildered and amorphous, transforming overnight... But here it was again, all of a sudden, resurfacing smugly and immovably in the middle of my life, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with it.But despite Ryan’s efforts to dismiss the truth, it emerges and he gets suspended from the investigation. That leaves him watching from the sidelines, as Maddox, wearing a wire, tries to trick a particularly slippery witness into confessing.“Look,” Cassie said, and I heard her swallow.“We’re about to go into the estate, and you said I only had till we got back to the house....” “You’ll know when I tell you. And we’ll go in when I decide to go in. Actually, I think we might go back this way, so I can finish telling you my story.” I won’t reveal any more, other than to say that In the Woods does not solve all of its mysteries it raises or end with justice – in the broader sense – being done.Instead, French’s novel is about the terrible price that not knowing can exact from those whose job is empiric investigation.As the author acknowledges in her concluding note, she altered some of the details of police practice in Ireland for dramatic purposes. But In the Woods – a novel in which police procedure reveals as many human pitfalls and shortcomings as it does facts – rings very true nonetheless.
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