One of the strongest aspects of this book is the writing. French is able to craft wonderfully atmospheric sentences not often found in the mystery/thriller/crime fiction genre. Her descriptions are simply beautiful, and the dark melancholic tone was effectively conveyed through the prose. The suspense in this novel is not of the in-your-face variety, but rather a subtle feeling that slowly builds as the story progresses.
The characters and their relationships with each other were also beautifully drawn. Rob Ryan is your text book unreliable narrator and he tells the reader so from the very first chapter with this quote: "What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie." Despite this warning, I found myself falling for his delusions and fabrications. Cassie Maddox, Rob's partner, was also well written. She's a tough, intelligent female character with just the right amount of vulnerability and softness to be believable.
But even more compelling than either of their individual characters, is the relationship between them. Their chemistry is phenomenal. The synchronicity between them, their shared understanding, and the building sexual tension were extremely well done. I found myself mourning the loss of their friendship after their relationship went south In addition to the main characters, I also enjoyed the side characters. They each had their quirks and idiosyncrasies that made them believable, and their relationships with the main duo were also intriguing.
Both the mystery of the murdered twelve year old girl, and the mystery of Rob's past were engaging, although I figured out the answer to one of them pretty early on. Cassie's dislike for Rosalind and her assessment of her as psychopath aroused my suspicions, but I was sure that she and Damien were the killers after she and Jessica confirmed his story about the guy in the tracksuit. Still, this didn't ruin my enjoyment because the other mystery kept me intrigued and because I was invested in the characters.
This would have been a five star read if not for the ending, which was extremely unsatisfying. It was simply cruel of French not to solve the mystery of what happened to Rob and his friends in 1984. Honestly, I wonder if she even knows the answer. Although my main grievance with the ending, and the story as a whole, is contained in the spoiler above, I was also disappointed by the lack of resolution for Rob's character. I hope that one of the sequels will provide a satisfying conclusion to both.
Other than the ending, the only other issue that stood out was my skepticism about the police being ignorant of Rob's past. Do police officers in Ireland not have to undergo extensive background checks like they do in the United States? Rob's past identity and involvement in a missing persons case surely would have come up even in a cursory investigation. Perhaps this is one of this differences between the U.S. and Ireland, but it really affected the believability of the story for me.
Just as In the Woods defies genres, it also defies any sort of book rating system. Although I rated this book four stars, I seriously considered rating it one star and could have easily rated it five stars. In fact, I could justify rating it two stars or three as well. It is simultaneously wonderful, tortuous, frustrating, and engrossing. I whole heartedly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys mysteries, crime fiction, beautiful writing, and compelling characters, but be prepared to be left dissatisfied at the end.