Study Guide

In The Woods Themes

  • Lies and Deceit

    A mystery novel just wouldn't be a mystery novel without lies. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot would have no problem solving cases if the guilty party just fessed up to it—but it also wouldn't be any fun. In the Woods is no different. There's lies in them thar' woods, and it's not just the suspects lying, either. Rob and Cassie have to be equally deceitful in order to get to the truth, so while two wrongs don't make a right, two lies might make a truth. And then, of course, there's Rob's personal struggle with telling the truth. Yup, this is a book where the detectives lie almost as much as the criminals do.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Why does Rob lie? Why does he tell us that he lies? Do you ever believe anything he says, even when he's supposedly telling the truth?
    2. Do you really believe that Rob doesn't remember his past? Or is he lying about this, too?
    3. How do the police lie in order to get what they want from suspects, such as during interrogation?
    4. Why does Rosalind lie? Are her lies more unethical than Rob's lies?

    Chew on This

    Rob is a terrible detective because, while he's really good at lying himself, he's terrible at knowing when other people are lying and he thinks people are lying when they're telling the truth.

    Cassie is a much better liar and human lie detector that Rob is, perhaps because she chooses to be honest most of the time. She really knows the difference.

  • Memories and the Past

    In any situation, everyone involved will have a different memory of what happen. This is especially true whenever there's a crime. "He fell down the stairs." "She pushed him." "He backed into the knife… twelve times." That type of thing.

    Now imagine how varied the memories would be when the crime happened twenty years ago. In the Woods deals with two different cases—a present-day crime, and a two-decades-old cold case in which the primary witness was a preteen. We can't even remember what we did the summer we were twelve, and no one tried to murder us in the woods, so while we think we'd remember that, we're actually not so sure.

    Questions About Memories and the Past

    1. Why has Rob repressed his memories?
    2. What strategies does Rob use to try to recover his repressed memories? Are they effective? Should he have left these memories repressed?
    3. When Rob starts recovering memories, what does he remember? Which memories does he end up keeping and which memories does he try to forget again?
    4. How do different characters (such as Rob and his mother) remember things differently?

    Chew on This

    The longer it takes for a crime to be solved, the harder it is to solve it, because all the witnesses' memories become more like legends than truth as the years go by.

    It's possible Rob is pretending not to remember—he is a liar, after all—to hide his involvement in the 1984 crime.

  • Manipulation

    Almost all stories try to manipulate you in some way, whether it's a book with an unreliable narrator or a movie where Haley Joel Osment gets stabbed at the end. The good ones are the ones where you can't see the strings that are tugging at you, making you laugh or cry.

    The same could be said for serial killers, actually, although those strings you can't see are the ones slowly restricting your air supply.

    Man, this theme just got dark. But In the Woods is a pretty gruesome murder case where everyone is being manipulated in some way or another. Even you.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. How do Rob and Cassie manipulate their suspects during interrogation?
    2. What tactics does Rosalind use to manipulate Damien into killing Katy? Does she use similar techniques to manipulate Rob during his investigation?
    3. Cassie was manipulated by a creepy old man in elementary school and by a psychopath in college. How do these events affect her during the investigation?

    Chew on This

    As an unreliable narrator, Rob is a master at manipulating the reader.

    Turnabout is fair play, and the only way to catch Rosalind is to out-manipulate her.

  • Jealousy

    Jealousy is one of the base human emotions that we'd like to think we grow out of as we get older, but honestly, we never do. And if you have, then we hate you. Who do you think you are anyway?


    Even though Rob and Cassie, the main characters of In the Woods, are almost thirty, sometimes they still act like they're in high school. Especially Rob. He often gets so jealous of, well, anything—success, Cassie getting attention, maybe even Sam's map-making skills—that he'd almost be more at home in a college drama than a mystery.

    Normally we'd try to ignore it and focus on the positive (and show that we're clearly superior to anyone succumbing to jealousy), but Rob's behavior affects the case and becomes a critical part of the book. So we suppose we have to talk about it, though we'd totally prefer to take the high road.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. Who is Rob jealous of during the course of the investigation? Why? Does he realize he is jealous of these people?
    2. Is Rosalind motivated purely by jealousy, or does she conspire to murder her younger sister for other reasons?
    3. How does jealousy factor into the 1984 crimes, including Sandra's gang-rape and Jamie and Peter's disappearance?

    Chew on This

    Whatever happened to Rob in the woods in 1984 stunted his growth, and he's unable to get past his childish level of jealousy.

    Jealousy is a major player in the present-day crime—Rosalind is jealous of the attention Katy gets—and the investigation, too, since Rob allows his jealousy get in the way.

  • Violence

    We can't think of many non-violent ways to murder someone. Maybe forcing someone to watch Little House on the Prairie reruns until they die of boredom? At any rate, crime novels require a certain level of violence, and In the Woods is a combo of police procedural and psychological suspense. And part of police procedure involves checking out the dead body at the crime scene (eek), examining the bloody murder weapons (ew), and attending the autopsy (barf). Yeah, there's a reason why we read about these things and don't actually do them.

    Questions About Violence

    1. How does Rob use violence to intimidate certain interrogation suspects?
    2. Why does Damien try to minimize the violence when he murders Katy?
    3. Were you surprised at the level of detail in the murder investigation, or did you expect more?
    4. How did the acts of violence in 1984—the rape, the disappearance—affect the character's lives twenty years later?

    Chew on This

    Rob is a little desensitized violence, both because of the 1984 crime and because he's a murder investigator, so it makes sense for him to downplay the violence of the crime.

    Rosalind didn't just manipulate Damien into committing their heinous crime; he had to have been screwed up in the first place to even do something so terrible to another human being.

  • Women and Femininity

    We're going to say a few words and phrases, and we want you to conjure up an image in your head. Ready? Here we go.



    Police officer.


    In your mind, which of these were male and which were female? If you thought of Amelia Earhart, Tyson Beckford, Linda Everett, and Dr. Meredith Grey, you're going against most gender stereotypes of these professions.

    In In the Woods, Detective Cassie Maddox has to fight two battles—she's trying to find Katy's killer, and she's trying to overcome the general belief that a woman can't be a good cop. Double ugh.

    Take a look at the cover of the book. What's the author's name? It's no surprise that French turns gender stereotypes on their (empty) heads. You go, girls.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What kind of discrimination does Cassie face at the police station?
    2. Would Rosalind have been able to manipulate Damien and Rob if she were male?
    3. What kind of women does Rob like? Why?
    4. How would the case have been different if Katy were Kevin?

    Chew on This

    Despite all the misogynist sentiment at the beginning of the novel (like about how women can't be good cops), it turns out that one woman masterminded the crime, while another solves the case.

    Rob likes stereotypically feminine qualities in women—cuteness, helplessness—but he hates them in men. Thing is, though, when it comes to helplessness, he's kind of a textbook case.

  • Appearances

    If you judged In the Woods by its cover, you might think it was a camping guide, albeit one to the creepiest forest ever. (Essentials: flashlight, tent, mace, rape whistle…) Of course we're told not to judge books, people, or people in books by their covers, but that's exactly what a detective has to do. They have to check out the crime scene and the suspects to find clues. The truly successful detectives, however, are the ones who are able to look beneath the surface, who see beyond appearances.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. How does Rob judge others by their appearance?
    2. How do the officers define themselves by how they dress? What do their clothes say about them?
    3. Why was Rob self-conscious about his appearance as a young boy?
    4. Are people stereotyped by their appearances in this book? Do bad guys look a certain way, while good guys look another way? Or does the book defy stereotypes (like ugly = bad)? How does this affect your reading of the story?

    Chew on This

    Rob is pretty superficial. He judges people by how they dress and is easily fooled by how they act, and he rarely tries to understand the why.

    Cassie, as a female detective, is accustomed to being on the receiving end of misinterpretations because of her appearance. As a result, she tends to look a bit deeper into people to find their true selves.

  • The Supernatural

    Tana French isn't Stephen King, so the kids who went missing in the woods weren't pursued by some sort of strange deer-headed, bee-spitting beast

    Or were they?

    In In the Woods, the 1984 case is never solved, and probably never will be. As a result, many theories abound. It could have been a random killing. It could have been someone close to the kids. It could have been Rob. Or it could have been a howling, flapping, laughing monster. Eek.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Which people describe hearing something strange in the woods? What do these people have in common?
    2. Do you think there is a supernatural force in the woods? Could it have been involved in Jamie and Peter's disappearance? If not, what do you think these people heard? Are their memories playing tricks on them?
    3. Before Katy's case is cracked, why do some people believe Katy's murder was the result of a satanic ritual or other sort of sacrifice? Why don't others?

    Chew on This

    When people don't know the answer to something, they blame it on the supernatural. (Think: Zeus and his lightning bolts.)

    When people are doing something that they shouldn't (camping out in the woods near their old crime scene, gang-raping a girl), they get paranoid, and when they're paranoid, every little noise sounds like something scary. In retrospect, these scary noises can take on lives of their own.