What happened... In the Woods?
July 2, 2016 12:33 PM   Subscribe

I've got a question about Tana French's In the Woods, which is an excellent mystery novel. To ask my question, however, I'll have to spoil a significant part of the story's mystery.

Here's the question: so, what happened in 1984?

I know that, on the surface, no clear answer is given. But I also have a sneaking suspicion that you can build a convincing account from what Ryan says / doesn't say... You know, the same sort of account people have developed from clues in Game of Thrones regarding things, like Jon Snow's mother. Actually, I'm willing to bet you could build a variety of different convincing accounts, built from taking certain passages as true and others as Ryan lying.

I'd really like to read such accounts. I want to see theories built from careful textual exegesis of the novel. Got any?
posted by meese to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I dunno. I'm usually an obsessive putter-together-of-pieces, but I think there might not be an answer to this one. I think it's just a frustratingly unsolved, unknowable mystery.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:57 PM on July 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

My impression from interviews I read is that she has the answer, but there is no way for the characters to get there, so she cut it from the book.

(Her next book is due this autumn.)
posted by jeather at 1:14 PM on July 2, 2016

It's been too long since I read the book to remember details, so I looked at some Tana French interviews and didn't reach the same conclusion as jeather: I don't think French knew or invented the full backstory.

In a Diane Rehm Show interview she said, "I began it because I had had the idea of three children running into a wood to play and only one ever comes out. And he has no idea of what happened to the other two. He has no memory left. And what would that do to his mind as he grew up, knowing that he's got the solution to this mystery somewhere inside, but he can't put his finger on it. And what if he became a detective and another case drew him back to the wood. I wanted to know what would happen. It was as simple as that. And there was no way to find out how that idea would pan out except to write it myself."

When asked in a Gawker interview where she gets her ideas, she said "Weirdly, none of my ideas have ever come from actual crimes, or even from anything crime-related. I think it's because it's not murder, or even crime in general, that fascinates me – it's mystery. I've always loved mysteries, ever since I was a kid – real ones, fictional ones, solved or unsolved, I don't care." And asked in that interview about Rob Ryan, she said "I'd love to go back to Rob Ryan. If I ever get the right idea that would let me pick up his story again, I'll dive on it. So far it hasn't happened, but I'm hoping."

As for reader theories, I came across one at the end of this review, although I don't think it's the convincing analysis you had in mind!
posted by Snerd at 1:51 PM on July 2, 2016

Here is one interview which hints at my reading:
Rob is the kind of person who, whenever he comes close to taking some irrevocable leap, runs as fast as he can in the other direction. He’s so badly damaged that he can’t risk taking that leap, in case it smashes him into a million pieces. So when I started thinking about the end of In the Woods, I had three choices: turn my narrator into a totally different person in the last chapter, in order to force in a solution (cheap, artificial and cheesy); do a deus ex machina and have someone else pop up with the solution (cheap, artificial and cheesy); or stay true to the character and just write the best book I could, even if it didn’t exactly fit the genre conventions.
I can't find the others that imply that there was a solution but that she couldn't get there in the book. I'd love to ask her that one question -- "Do you know what actually happened to Rob and his friends?" I don't mind not knowing; it's fair to the book. But I want there to be an answer.
posted by jeather at 2:38 PM on July 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have you read the second book, The Likeness? It is told from Cassie's point of view (later on) and gave me a completely different perspective on Rob, which led me to think that he actually was responsible for at least some of the violence. It certainly made me realize what an unreliable narrator he was and how his relationships with women were problematic in a fairly creepy way.

However, I think it's also right that there is no one correct answer in the book. There's just not enough information and I think it's quite likely that Tana French herself doesn't know.
posted by lunasol at 3:45 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just a heads up that the review in the Examiner that Snerd linked to has HUGE SPOILERS in it - it practically tells the answer to every mysterious plot point that the author sets up throughout the book. If you haven't read the book and you are planning to, be warned.
posted by CathyG at 4:58 PM on July 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

In order to not feel forever frustrated by this book, I had to suppose that the 1984 kids were killed by some supernatural animal thing. It's brought up a few times throughout the book, people mentioning a big wolf/fox creature, and even in the main case's confession scene, the killer remembers hearing some sort of giant creature snuffling around outside the shed. And also the whole weird noise/feeling in the aftermath of the 1984 rape scene. Plus the parallel claw marks on kid-Rob's shirt. And those times Rob saw a fox-like creature outside his window, or crossing the road in front of his car. Cassie also tells a story at one point about making up a scary forest wolf creature as a kid, but then actually ran into it later.

That, or Rob did it, which is kind of hinted at when Cassie comes back from talking to the original case's detective and won't tell him what he said, but I don't really find that a super satisfying answer.
posted by sonmi at 8:15 PM on July 3, 2016

So, I'll going to manage spoilers carefully here. I love French's Dublin Murder Squad series -- really the only mystery "series" I follow -- and I think there's a thread throughout that points to an answer to IN THE WOODS, though I don't have a better answer per se than has been presented here.

With one exception, all of the DMS books have a brush with something inexplicable and Irish-mythological. Let me talk for a second about THE LIKENESS, my favorite of them all, and there are no real spoilers here beyond what you'd see on the back cover: Cassie is brought in to investigate the death of her doppelgänger, and is in fact sent in undercover as her dead lookalike to try to solve the murder. In the front yard of the home she shares with, presumably, her murderer, there's a hawthorn tree -- which, legend has it, is where fairies live. And so the door is open just enough to introduce the (very Irish) concept of the changeling. I don't think that word ever appears in the book, but the parallels to the changeling myth and the stolen life chime with the story the book tells.

BROKEN HARBOR hints at another piece of Irish mythology, which I'll encode in ROT13: the frysvr. As with THE LIKENESS or IN THE WOODS, this particular term is never mentioned outright, but the myth in questions rhymes with the broken relationships in the story. (*I've also heard the clever idea that the unseen being in BROKEN HARBOR is actually, ROT13 ahoy, the Prygvp gvtre, which I might like even better than my theory.)

And then there's THE SECRET PLACE, which certainly continues this trend.

(Only FAITHFUL PLACE deviates, to my mind -- I don't recall anything in that which suggested a supernatural hand, although of the five books it's the one with a ghost most prominently at its heart.)

Anyway, for all those reasons, I've stuck with my original conclusion about IN THE WOODS that there really was something unspeakable out there. I don't have a specific piece of mythology to attach to it, and for story purposes it could "mean" anything: Ryan's inner demons, the evil of the world made manifest, etc. But French frequently feints toward the supernatural, and regardless of whether it's really "real" in the story world, I think a here-be-monsters attitude is the proper way to approach the books.
posted by blueshammer at 9:13 PM on July 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

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