In the Woods and the Unreliable Narrator

Spoiler warning: this post discusses key plot points and characters from In the Woods.

“I crave truth, and I lie,” are words spoken by the narrator of Tana French’s murder mystery, In the Woods. His words lead to the question: how much of the narrator’s perception can we trust? An unreliable narrator is one who’s credibility is compromised, and right off the bat, it’s clear that the main character of the novel doesn’t trust himself or the people around him.

When a twelve year old girl, Katie Devlin, is murdered in the small town of Knocknaree, detective Rob Ryan and his partner, Cassie Maddox, are assigned to investigate. Unbeknownst to everyone except Cassie, Rob has a dark ties with Knocknaree, and a secret from his past could get them both kicked off the case and end their careers with the Dublin Murder Squad.

 Rob, whose birth name was Adam, was born in Knocknaree, and when he was child, he and his two friends, Peter and Jamie, left home to play in the woods surrounding the small town. As night fell, and the three children failed to return home, the anxious parents called the police and organized a search party. They eventually located Rob in a densely wooded area near the center of the forest, with some minor scratches and blood stained shoes. Peter and Jamie were never found, and Rob retained no memory of what happened that night.

Twenty-two years later, Rob is working as a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad. Along with his partner and best friend Cassie, he is assigned to work on a case involving the murder of twelve year old girl, Katy Devlin, in his hometown of Knocknaree. Only Cassie knows the details of Rob’s past, and agrees to keep his secret while they investigate Katie’s murder. The investigation takes a heavy toll on Rob and his relationship with Cassie. His mental health deteriorates as he tries to remember what happened to him as a child, convinced that the two cases are somehow linked. 

The Dublin Murders on Starz is based on Tana French’s books.

Rob spends most of the novel in a state of denial. He lies to his partner and those around him about his well being, and omits the details of his past, knowing that they could get him kicked off the case. He is adamant that he didn’t become a detective to solve the mystery of his night in the woods, but his pursual of the case and the investigation into Katie’s murder says otherwise, and her murder is the catalyst which paves the way for Rob to solve the mystery of his past. 

Rob admits to lying. He lies to suspects to get them to confess, but he also lies to himself. “What I’m telling you, before you begin my story, is this– two things: I crave truth, and I lie.”

Rob is stuck in the past. He is still the same twelve year old boy who got lost in the woods. As the novel explores more of Rob’s physiological being, it becomes clear that he never grew up from the boy he was when he lived in Knocknaree, and as he says, he “never left the woods.” He changed his name and dentity His inability to find inner peace and move forward is clear when he starts to attribute his friendships with Cassie and Sam to his childhood friendships with Peter and Jamie. Despite what he says, he has never gotten closure over his experience, and allows his past to negatively impact his investigation. He is selfish, and has a skewed image of what friendship and partnership looks like. He claims that Cassie is his best friend and most trusted partner, though he keeps her at arm’s length and views her as a young girl whom he needs to protect and coddle. He knows that the secrets of his past and his refusal to tell his superiors would not only have negative impact on his career, but Cassie’s as well.

Rob and Cassie’s friendship dissolves when they sleep together, and suddenly Rob doesn’t view Cassie as his partner or equal, just as another woman he has slept with. He blows her off and claims that it has become too complicated, and like he has done with so many issues in his life, he shuts down and runs away. He refuses to have a conversation with Cassie and doesn’t value how much she meant to him until it is too late, and his relationship with her is fractured beyond repair.

Rob’s own insecurities and state of denial make him an incompetent detective. He is smart, but he fails to see through Rosalind, Katie’s older sister, and falls for her good girl routine, even when Cassie begins to suspect the girl of murdering Katie.

Rob was an interesting detective, and one that I hadn’t really seen before. He was so stuck in past, and was so guarded, that it made it hard for him to to form balanced relationships built on trust. He couldn’t move on from the night in the woods, and often blamed his problems on other people. He was stuck playing the victim and had gotten so used to lying, that he even lied to himself. One can’t blame Rob for the trauma he endured, and moving on from a tragedy takes time. It looks different for all of us, but Rob never commits to self healing, and in his profession, that baggage can actively harm innocent lives.

Yet, Rob doesn’t see his lies as harmful, and he projects his falsehoods upon himself and the reader as the objective truth. His perceptions become the reality of the story, until he is forced to confront the truth, both externally, and within himself. There’s no one else to corroborate Rob’s stories, because he even lies to Cassie, the woman who’s supposed to know him better than anyone else. It makes for an interesting read, because the narrator of the story is the person we connect with and trust from the start, and Rob makes it clear that he is not to be trusted.

The novel states in the prologue: “These children will not be coming of age, this or any other summer.” As Rob says, “in ways too dark and crucial to be metaphorical, I never left the wood.” 

BY MACK VELTMAN

Have you read In the Woods? Let me know what you thought of the novel and of Rob in the comments and as always, stay nerdy!

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