In the Woods has all the hallmarks of a mystery novel—a murder, a disappearance, an assortment of oddball suspects, police procedural straight out of cable television, and detectives whose personal lives are just as screwed up as the cases they're investigating. It also won an Edgar Award, which is awarded to the best works in the mystery field. So that pretty much settles that.
But hold up, because it's not your average mystery for one big reason: The case goes unsolved. And that goes against the tenets of the mystery genre.
Like Dudley Do-Right, mystery detectives always get their man (or seventeen-year-old girl). But in In the Woods, not only does the mastermind behind the crime, Rosalind Devlin, basically go free because Rob screws up the investigation so much, but the 1984 crime, an incident that hangs over the entire plot of the novel, goes completely unresolved. It basically could have been anyone—Rob, Jonathan Devlin, an owl-shaped demon in the woods. Even a true detective like Rust Cohle couldn't have solved this mystery. It's decades old and cold as a case gets, and yet it looms large.
Because of this, In the Woods is a postmodern mystery—it takes the traditional tenets of the mystery genre and toys with them. After all, not only does it explore the unexplorable in its repeated visits to the 1984 case, it's decidedly comfortable in leaving the whole debacle unexplained.
There are "woods" on two different levels in In the Woods. On the physical level, you can't miss them. The woods around Knocknaree are where Rob's friends disappeared in the eighties and where young Katy is found murdered in present-day. Some people believe there are monsters in the woods, and these beliefs are so strong that sometimes people see strange shapes or hear creepy noises, although no hard evidence of any strange supernatural beast actually prowling the woods is ever definitively found.
The woods are being threatened by the impending highway project, so the archeologists are working as fast as they can to see what is preserved in the ground before it's obliterated by a ribbon of asphalt. They are working against time, just like the detectives. And while most of their findings are standard fare—think: arrowheads—they also discover the corpse of a child displayed on a sacrificial alter.
The woods referred to in the title, then, on one level are a shout-out to everything that happens in the Knocknaree forest, from the terror in the eighties to Katy's murder to the archeological world to the impending highway.
Rob's memories are like woods, too, though. He says, "In ways too dark and crucial to be called metaphorical, I never left that wood" (2.99). As he tries to rebuild his memories from the time his friends went missing, it's just like the archeologists searching the woods. Instead of trying to search the woods before they build a highway, though (no one is going to build a road through Rob's head), he has to search fast to solve a present-day murder that might be linked to a decades-old cold case.
Just as the woods have been shrinking in real life thanks to some trees being cut down over the years, his memories feel smaller to Rob now that he is older. He says, "The strip of trees was what was left of it" (2.24)—in other words, he's forgotten so much that he has no clue what's going to turn up. Some of it is dark and mysterious and he doesn't know what to make of it, just like the mysterious beast that may or may not be prowling the woods. And sometimes he remembers something that he wishes he hadn't, like witnessing a gang rape in the clearing.
So the moral of this story is, whenever you go in the woods, whether in real life or your wooded memory, pack a flashlight. It's dark in there.
Rob is so comically bad at his job, we'd classify In the Woods as a comedy if it weren't so darn tragic. Rob loses everything in the end: his job, his partner, his friend (they're the same person), and some of his memories.
Cassie manages to snag Rosalind, but because Rob never verified Rosalind's age (she's actually seventeen) her confession is inadmissible. This is one of Rob's many screw-ups that get him demoted. And because he turns against Cassie after sleeping with her, Cassie stops being friends with him. She also transfers to a different unit, and it's unlikely they'll ever see each other again.
In the novel's final scene, Rob revisits the woods one last time before the bulldozers take it down. He talks to a construction worker who gives him an arrowhead (check the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" page for more on this). Rob jokingly asks, one last time, if the construction worker found any dead bodies—it's one last attempt to solve Jamie and Peter's disappearance.
But it'll never be solved. Here's the novels last line: "I watched for a long time, until my mobile began vibrating insistently in my pocket and the rain started to come down more heavily, and then I put out my cigarette and buttoned my coat and headed back to the car" (25.149).
We're not sure who's calling, but what we do know is that Rob is finally accepting what happened to him and walking away. He's putting his past, and the woods, behind him.
Knocknaree is a small town "only a few miles from Dublin" (Prologue.2)—Dublin, Ireland, that is—and it has farmers, cows, pastures, and children getting murdered in the woods. How quaint.
Knocknaree means "hill of the king" (6.68). This isn't a shout-out to Hank Hill, but instead to all the relics of ancient civilization that are being dug up in the woods.
Even though Rob grew up in Knocknaree, when he returns, he says the woods are "more intricate and more secretive" (16.4) than he remembered. "It was like stumbling into the wreck of some great ancient city" (16.6), he notes. It's a small town full of secrets—like Twin Peaks, but with fewer log ladies—and we can perhaps understand Rob's description of it as a description of how he sees himself, too; like something complex and mysterious and potentially wonderful. For more on Rob, though, be sure to check out the "Characters" section.
Knocknaree is a working-class suburb intended to be a "plan-perfect solution to overcrowding and poverty and every urban ill" (Prologue.2). No pressure, right? Thing is, this doesn't quite pan out. The families are struggling members of the working class, and with the highway moving in, they're still being taken advantage of by the powers that be.
Sure, the highway might bring more commerce to the area, but that's a really big might. The only definite is that it's putting money in the pockets of the landowners and developers who sold out (and maybe sold a tiny bit of their souls) to make the deal go through. Because of this, there's a whiff of desperation always in the air. And when people are desperate, people often commit crimes. Even murder.
"Probably just somebody's nasty black poodle. But I've always wondered… What if it really was Him, and He decided I wasn't worth it?"—Tony Kushner, A Bright Room Called Day
This is a quote from a play by Tony Kushner (better known for Angels in America). In this scene, a character is talking about a scene from Faust, where the Devil transforms into a black poodle. Eek.
The character talks about how, one night she saw a black poodle and thought, maybe this is it. This is when the Devil will talk to me! But of course, it was just a dog. Or was it? As she says in the epigraph, maybe it really was Satan, but the Devil didn't want to make a deal with her.
This is a special level of pity party that only choice individuals ever RSVP to. In one scene of In the Woods, Rob wonders why he didn't get murdered. Was there something wrong with him? Is he just too much of a loser to even get murdered? Like the character in Kushner's play, Rob laments the idea that evil's skipped him over. Odd ducks, the both of them.
In the Woods is a fairly long book (over four hundred pages), and it deals with some disturbing subject matter—murder, rape, kids disappearing, parents naming their children after Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake—but it's easy to follow. It's told from the point of view of a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad, and he's more than happy to walk you through his train of thought on the case.
Plus, Rob, our narrator, went to school in England to eliminate his Irish accent, so while In the Woods may be set in Ireland, it doesn't feel Irish. Characters don't speak with thick accents, forcing you to wade through indecipherable dialect.
So what we have is a stay-up-until-two-in-the-morning page-turner and a literary thriller. In the Woods is the best of both worlds—like the Ben and Jerry's Cookies and Milk ice cream of the fiction universe.
The cardboard box in the basement of the police station is like a smaller, sadder version of the woods. Rob's crime occurred about twenty years ago and, frankly, no one cares except for Rob. When he goes down to dig through the files, he says, "I doubt anyone had touched it since" (4.74). It may be sad for Rob, but it's also totally true: No one cares about the case anymore.
Just like with Rob's memories, the case gets smaller and smaller the older it is. It gets packed up, put away, and forgotten. The lives of the missing kids, Peter and Jamie, have been condensed down to one small, neglected container.
If Rob hadn't been involved in the Devlin case, no one would have made the connections between the current case and the old one… and that might have been for the best. It's not like they uncovered anything about the old case while investigating the new one, and instead all that happens is Rob's old wounds are re-opened. The box, then, symbolizes the past, its diminishing relevance, and Rob's inability to completely let it go.
The Move the Motorway campaign is one of the novel's red herrings. A highway is going to be built through Knocknaree, and some people don't want it, because the historic woods will be bulldozed in the process. They don't want the highway gone, per say, they just want it moved, like, a few feet to the right. But according to Mark, "the government doesn't give a fuck" (6.43). This happens with governments.
Jonathan Devlin heads up the Move the Motorway campaign, which makes him a target, and the police briefly suspect one of the developers or landowners might have hired an assassin to kill Katy as a threat against her old man.
The motorway may be a red herring, but it ties into the setting, particularly the economic despair prevalent in Knocknaree. Sam defends the motorway, saying, "The motorway will do a lot of good, Cassie. […] There'll be new houses, new jobs" (8.24). But of course Sam thinks this—his uncle is in charge. The economic benefit, at this point, is all speculation, and because of this, the highway reminds us of the downtrodden community this murder takes place in, keeping the bleakness of the book alive and kicking.
During the investigation, Sam draws a neat little map of Knocknaree, and Rob hates it. He says, "It got on my nerves for reasons I couldn't quite define. It was the perfection of it, I think, the fragile enchanting detail" (10.49). Why does Rob hate it? Maybe because Sam has given order to the chaos in Rob's head, chaos Rob can never hope to sort out. Or maybe it's Sam's ability to hunker down and focus, to see clearly while Rob fumbles around grumpily and emotionally.
We only see the map twice—once when Sam draws it, and again when he takes it down, at which point we're shown that "his map of Knocknaree was starting to curl at the edges" (25.6). In a way, so has Rob's life by this point. He's lost his career and his friends. It's mostly his fault, but he probably wouldn't be such a hot mess were it not for what happened to him at Knocknaree. And insofar as his entire life has been changed by this town, when we see the map of the town worn down, we're reminded of how worn down Rob is, too.
As Rob tries to remember details of what happened in 1984, he remembers something that couldn't possibly be true, a secret garden in the woods, peaceful and quiet. Not just quiet, but possessing an "infinite silence" (10.5). No one else has seen this garden, so it can't exist, right? Rob says, "If this garden had existed it would have been found […] but this was the problem: I remembered it, all the same" (10.59). What makes something true? Its existence? Or just the memory of it? If a child finds a secret garden, but his other two friends are murdered, did the secret garden exist at all?
Strangely, Rosalind later uses the phrase "our secret garden" (17.69) when she finds a place to confide in Rob. However, like everything Rosalind does, this garden, too, is full of lies. Everything Rosalind "confesses" to Rob is a falsehood, just like the garden itself. The garden, then, represents the lies Rob tells himself—and lying in general. In a book haunted by death, nothing pretty blooms.
At the end of In the Woods, Rob goes back, er, in the woods one last time. The woods are about to be bulldozed for the highway, and Rob chats up one of the construction workers.
The worker has found something the archeologists missed: an arrowhead. It "was cool in [Rob's] palm, heavier than you might expect. Narrow grooves, half worn away, formed a pattern on one side. […] No more than a stick figure, with the wide, pronged antlers of a stag" (25.143). What the heck could that be? Evidence of human sacrifice? A supernatural force in the woods? Whatever it is, it's no lucky charm. Or probably not in Rob's hands, anyway.
We'll never know. Rob gives it back to the worker to give to his grandson. This gesture shows us that, whatever caused the disappearance of Peter and Jamie in 1984, Rob is finally going to try to put it behind him. He needs to visit the woods to say goodbye, but he doesn't need a token from them to carry forward. However, the arrowhead leaves "slender red marks" (25.149) across Rob's palm, symbolizing that the scars of the past will always stick with him.