In 1984, three children disappear into the woods near their Irish village; two of them are never seen again – the third is found, bloodstained and catatonic. Twenty years later, that third child is a murder detective in Dublin, but when another child is murdered in those same woods, he finds himself drawn increasingly into the past in his attempts to solve the crimes of the present. This book is a real masterpiece, probably the best literary mystery I’ve encountered since Mystic River. The characters are brilliantly sketched, in particular the main trio of investigators: Adam Ryan is the grown up boy who disappeared; Cassie Maddox is his indefatigable partner; Sam O’Neill is the naïve rookie. It’s the relationship of these characters that really made this book sing. But I suppose it’s really French’s writing; it’s layered, complex and beautiful and there’s not a word out of place. The way she’s able to get into Ryan’s head is nothing short of masterful; so brilliantly does she explicate the damaged male psyche, that three times when talking about this book to friends, I referred to the author as “he.” The ending is sure to be incredibly divisive, but for me it was the only possible ending. Some will doubtless hate it, but it’s a measure of French’s integrity as a storyteller that she doesn’t flinch from the grim reality at the heart of her story. It’s a thriller in the noir vein, but sharply observed, deeply emotional and brilliantly characterized. It’s dark, no question, grim and merciless. At times, it even feels distinctly like a horror novel; there’s a scene of Ryan investigating the woods alone, late at night, that’s maybe the most frightening scene I’ve read all year. But, it is, above and beyond any genre classifications, a masterpiece; a book you really must read. It’s not just the best mystery or best thriller I’ve read this year. It’s damn close to the best book full stop. Venture into the trees; find out for yourself about the things that happen in the woods. 4 stars.
tl;dr – gripping thriller is terrifying and grim; brilliant characterization, an unflinchingly bitter plot and a real, painful empathy elevate this book to the status of masterpiece. 4 stars.