Book Excerpt
In The Woods
by Tana French

An excerpt from In The Woods by Tana French, published 2008 by Penguin Books.
Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2008 Tana French



I became a policeman because I wanted to be a Murder detective. My time in training and in uniform -- Templemore College, endless complicated physical exercises, wandering around small towns in a cartoonish Day-Glo jacket, investigating which of the three unintelligible local delinquents had broken Mrs. McSweeney's garden-shed window -- all felt like an embarrassing daze scripted by Ionesco, a trial by tedium I had to endure, for some dislocated bureaucratic reason, in order to earn my actual job. I never think about those years and cannot remember them with any clarity. I made no friends; to me my detachment from the whole process felt involuntary and inevitable, like the side effect of a sedative drug, but the other cops read it as deliberate superciliousness, a studied sneer at their solid rural backgrounds and solid rural ambitions. Possibly it was. I recently found a diary entry from college in which I described my classmates as "a herd of mouth-breathing fucktard yokels who wade around in a miasma of clich‚ so thick you can practically smell the bacon and cabbage and cow shite and altar candles." Even assuming I was having a bad day, I think this shows a certain lack of respect for cultural differences.

When I made the Murder squad, I had already had my new work clothes -- beautifully cut suits in materials so fine they felt alive to your fingers, shirts with the subtlest of blue or green pinstripes, rabbit-soft cashmere scarves-hanging in my wardrobe for almost a year. I love the unspoken dress code. It was one of the things that first fascinated me about the job -- that and the private, functional, elliptical shorthand: latents, trace, Forensics. One of the Stephen King small towns where I was posted after Templemore had a murder: a routine domestic-violence incident that had escalated beyond even the perpetrator's expectations, but, because the man's previous girlfriend had died in suspicious circumstances, the Murder squad sent down a pair of detectives. All the week they were there, I had one eye on the coffee machine whenever I was at my desk, so I could get my coffee when the detectives got theirs, take my time adding milk and eavesdrop on the streamlined, brutal rhythms of their conversation: when the Bureau comes back on the tox, once the lab IDs the serrations. I started smoking again so I could follow them out to the car park and smoke a few feet from them, staring blindly at the sky and listening. They would give me brief unfocused smiles, sometimes a flick of a tarnished Zippo, before dismissing me with the slightest angle of a shoulder and going back to their subtle, multidimensional strategies. Pull in the ma first, then give him an hour or two to sit at home worrying about what she's saying, then get him back in. Set up a scene room but just walk him through it, don't give him time for a good look.

Contrary to what you might assume, I did not become a detective on some quixotic quest to solve my childhood mystery. I read the file once, that first day, late on my own in the squad room with my desk lamp the only pool of light (forgotten names setting echoes flicking like bats around my head as they testified in faded Biro that Jamie had kicked her mother because she didn't want to go to boarding school, that "dangerous-looking" teenage boys spent evenings hanging around at the edge of the wood, that Peter's mother once had a bruise on her cheekbone), and then never looked at it again. It was these arcana I craved, these near-invisible textures like a Braille legible only to the initiated. They were like thoroughbreds, those two Murder detectives passing through Ballygobackwards; like trapeze artists honed to a sizzling shine. They played for the highest stakes, and they were experts at their game.

I knew that what they did was cruel. Humans are feral and ruthless; this, this watching through cool intent eyes and delicately adjusting one factor or another till a man's fundamental instinct for self-preservation cracks, is savagery in its most pure, most polished and most highly evolved form.

We heard about Cassie days before she joined the squad, probably before she even got the offer. Our grapevine is ridiculously, old-ladyishly efficient. Murder is a high-pressure squad and a small one, only twenty permanent members, and under any added strain (anyone leaving, anyone new, too much work, too little work), it tends to develop a tinge of cabin-fevery hysteria, full of complicated alliances and frantic rumors. I am usually well out of the loop, but the Cassie Maddox buzz was loud enough that even I picked up on it.

For one thing she was a woman, which caused a certain amount of poorly sublimated outrage. We are all well trained to be horrified by the evils of prejudice, but there are deep stubborn veins of nostalgia for the 1950s (even among people my age; in much of Ireland the fifties didn't end until 1995, when we skipped straight to Thatcher's eighties), when you could scare a suspect into confession by threatening to tell his mammy and the only foreigners in the country were med students and work was the one place where you were safe from nagging females. Cassie was only the fourth woman Murder had taken on, and at least one of the others had been a huge mistake (a deliberate one, according to some people) who had entered squad lore when she nearly got herself and her partner killed by freaking out and throwing her gun at a cornered suspect's head.

Also, Cassie was only twenty-eight and only a few years out of Templemore. Murder is one of the elite squads, and nobody under thirty gets taken on unless his father is a politician. Generally you have to spend a couple of years as a floater, helping out wherever someone is needed for legwork, and then work your way up through at least one or two other squads. Cassie had less than a year in Drugs under her belt. The grapevine claimed, inevitably, that she was sleeping with someone important, or alternatively that she was someone's illegitimate daughter, or -- with a touch more originality -- that she had caught someone important buying drugs and this job was a payoff for keeping her mouth shut.

I had no problem with the idea of Cassie Maddox. I had been in Murder only a few months, but I disliked the New Neanderthal locker-room overtones, competing cars and competing aftershaves and subtly bigoted jokes justified as "ironic," which always made me want to go into a long pedantic lecture on the definition of irony. On the whole I prefer women to men. I also had complicated private insecurities to do with my own place on the squad. I was almost thirty-one and had two years as a floater and two in Domestic Violence, so my appointment was less sketchy than Cassie's, but I sometimes thought the brass assumed I was a good detective in the mindless preprogrammed way that some men will assume a tall, slim, blond woman is beautiful even if she has a face like a hyperthyroid turkey: because I have I all the accessories. I have a perfect BBC accent, picked up at boarding school as protective camouflage, and all that colonization takes awhile to wear off: even though the Irish will cheer for absolutely any team playing against England, and I know a number of pubs where I couldn't order a drink without risking a glass to the back of the head, they still assume that anyone with a stiff upper lip is more intelligent, better educated and generally more likely to be right. On top of this I am tall, with a bony, rangy build that can look lean and elegant if my suit is cut just right, and fairly good-looking in an offbeat way. Central Casting would definitely think I was a good detective, probably the brilliant maverick loner who risks his neck fearlessly and always gets his man.

I have practically nothing in common with that guy, but I wasn't sure anyone else had noticed. Sometimes, after too much solitary vodka, I came up with vivid paranoid scenarios in which the superintendent found out I was actually a civil servant's son from Knocknaree and I got transferred to Intellectual Property Rights. With Cassie Maddox around, I figured, people were much less likely to spend time having suspicions about me.

When she finally arrived, she was actually sort of an anticlimax. The lavishness of the rumors had left me with a mental picture of someone on the same TV-drama scale, with legs up to here and shampoo-ad hair and possibly a catsuit. Our superintendent, O'Kelly, introduced her at Monday-morning parade, and she stood up and said something standard about being delighted to join the squad and hoping she'd live up to its high standards; she was barely medium height, with a cap of dark curls and a boyish, slim, square-shouldered build. She wasn't my type -- I have always liked girlie girls, sweet, tiny bird-boned girls I can pick up and whirl around in a one-armed hug -- but there was something about her: maybe the way she stood, weight on one hip, straight and easy as a gymnast; maybe just the mystery.

"I heard her family are Masons and they threatened to have the squad dissolved if we didn't take her on," said Sam O'Neill, behind me. Sam is a stocky, cheerful, unflappable guy from Galway. I hadn't had him down as one of the people who would get swept up in the rumor tsunami.

"Oh for God's sake," I said, falling for it. Sam grinned and shook his head at me, and slid past me to a seat. I went back to looking at Cassie, who had sat down and propped one foot against the chair in front of her, leaning her notebook on her thigh.

She wasn't dressed like a Murder detective. You learn by osmosis, as soon as you set your sights on the job, that you are expected to look professional, educated, discreetly expensive with just a soup‡on of originality. We give the taxpayers their money's worth of comforting clich‚. We mostly shop at Brown Thomas, during the sales, and occasionally come into work wearing embarrassingly identical soup‡ons. Up until then, the wackiest our squad had got was this cretin called Quigley, who sounded like Daffy Duck with a Donegal accent and wore slogan T-shirts (MAD BASTARD) under his suits because he thought he was being daring. When he eventually realized that none of us were shocked, or even remotely interested, he got his mammy to come up for the day and take him shopping at BT.

That first day I put Cassie in the same category. She was wearing combat trousers and a wine-colored woollen sweater with sleeves that came down past her wrists, and clunky runners, and I put this down as affectation: Look, I'm too cool for your conventions. The spark of animosity this ignited increased my attraction to her. There is a side of me that is most intensely attracted to women who annoy me.

I didn't register her very much over the next couple of weeks, except in the general way that you do register any decent-looking woman when you're surrounded by men. She was being shown the ropes by Tom Costello, our resident grizzled veteran, and I was working on a homeless man found battered to death in an alleyway. Some of the depressing, inexorable flavor of his life had leaked over into his death, and it was one of those cases that are hopeless from the start -- no leads, nobody saw anything, nobody heard anything, whoever killed him was probably so drunk or high he didn't even remember doing it -- so my gung-ho newbie sparkle was starting to look a little patchy. I was also partnered with Quigley, which wasn't working out; his idea of humor was to reenact large segments of Wallace & Gromit and then do a Woody Woodpecker laugh to show you they were funny, and it was dawning on me that I'd been teamed up with him not because he would be friendly to the new boy but because nobody else wanted him. I didn't have the time or the energy to get to know Cassie. Sometimes I wonder how long we might have gone on like that. Even in a small squad, there are always people with whom you never get beyond nods and smiles in corridors, simply because your paths never happen to cross anywhere else.

We became friends because of her moped, a cream 1981 Vespa that somehow, in spite of its classic status, reminds me of a happy mutt with some border collie in its pedigree. I call it the Golf Cart to annoy Cassie; she calls my battered white Land Rover the Compensation Wagon, with the odd compassionate remark about my girlfriends, or the Ecomobile when she is feeling bolshie. The Golf Cart chose a viciously wet, windy day in September to break down outside work. I was on my way out of the car park and saw this little dripping girl in a red rain jacket, looking like Kenny out of South Park, standing beside this little dripping bike and yelling after a bus that had just drenched her. I pulled over and called out the window, "Could you use a hand?"

She looked at me and shouted back, "What makes you think that?" and then, taking me completely by surprise, started to laugh.

For about five minutes, as I tried to get the Vespa to start, I fell in love with her. The oversized raincoat made her look about eight, as though she should have had matching Wellies with ladybugs on them, and inside the red hood were huge brown eyes and rain-spiked lashes and a face like a kitten's. I wanted to dry her gently with a big fluffy towel, in front of a roaring fire. But then she said, "Here, let me -- you have to know how to twist the thingy," and I raised an eyebrow and said, "The thingy? Honestly, girls."

I immediately regretted it -- I have never been talented at banter, and you never know, she could have been some earnest droning feminist extremist who would lecture me in the rain about Amelia Earhart. But Cassie gave me a deliberate, sideways look, and then clasped her hands with a wet spat and said in a breathy Marilyn voice, "Ohhh, I've always dreamed of a knight in shining armor coming along and rescuing little me! Only in my dreams he was good-looking."

What I saw transformed with a click like a shaken kaleidoscope. I stopped falling in love with her and started to like her immensely. I looked at her hoodie jacket and said, "Oh my God, they're about to kill Kenny." Then I loaded the Golf Cart into the back of my Land Rover and drove her home.

In The Woods by Tana French,


In Tana French's powerful debut thriller, three children leave their small Dublin neighborhood to play in the surrounding woods. Hours later, their mothers' calls go unanswered. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children, gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.

Twenty years later, Detective Rob Ryan -- the found boy, who has kept his past a secret -- and his partner Cassie Maddox investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl in the same woods. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him, and that of his own shadowy past.

In The Woods by Tana French,


Tana French grew up in Ireland, Italy, the United States, and Malawi. A trained actress, she currently lives in Dublin.

In The Woods by Tana French,


"Tana French's intense debut novel, In the Woods, is part whodunit, part psychological thriller, and wholly successful....French's plot twists and turns will bamboozle even the most astute reader....A well-written, expertly plotted thriller. "

-- Nancy Pearl, correspondent for NPR's Morning Edition

"Readers who like their hard-boiled police procedurals with an international flair will love Irish author Tana French's debut novel....In the Woods is as creepily imaginative as it gets."

-- USA Today

"Tana French promises two whodunits for the price of one in her harrowing first novel. Drawn by the grim nature of her plot and the lyrical ferocity of her writing, even smart people who should know better will be able to lose themselves in these dark woods."

-- Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

"[In the Woods] plies dark, shuddery suspense to the breaking point...[a] thoroughly taunting suspense novel."

-- New York Daily News

"An auspicious debut...The theater-trained French clearly knows a thing or two about drama....The book's plot and pacing are rock-solid, but its tender characterizations, particularly the deepening relationship between Ryan and his brainy, tough female partner, are what set it apart. Strong stuff."

-- The Seattle Times

"The beauty of the novel comes from French's adept handling of character....The result is a wise, funny, satisfying novel that has as much to say about urban life, pop culture, and the unknown territories of friendship as it does about the mysteries hidden in the woods."

-- Metro New York

"French may be a first-time author, but she has crafted a completely engrossing literary police procedural that kept me up much too late....This is quite an accomplished debut."

-- "Galley Talk," Publishers Weekly

"In the Woods is a superior novel about cops, murder, memory, relationships, and modern Ireland. The characters of Ryan and Maddox, as well as a handful of others, are vividly developed in this intelligent and beautifully written first novel, and author French relentlessly builds the psychological pressure on Ryan as the investigation lurches onward under the glare of the tabloid media. An outstanding debut and a series to watch for procedural fans."

-- Booklist (starred review)

"The result is a compellingly complex case with nuanced characters and a richly detailed sense of place."

-- Kirkus Reviews

"Irish author French expertly walks the line between police procedural and psychological thriller in her debut."

-- Publishers Weekly

"[An] ambitious and extraordinary first novel...rank it high."

-- The Washington Post Book World

In The Woods by Tana French,