‘In the Woods,’ ‘Broken Harbor’ and The Problem of Unreliable Narrators

I’ve been reading, actually listening to, “In the Woods,” the first in Tana French’s murder mystery series about a Dublin murder squad. I read the fourth in the series, “Broken Harbor,” first, because it got a lot of good notice. Both are narrated by a male detectives (not the same one) with, shall we say, issues, and aside from the usual guilty pleasures of a well-written and psychologically penetrating murder mystery, Ms. French in both books offers interesting perplexities about the nature of the first-person narrator who is unreliable, or at least has something to hide.

Without giving too much away, I can say that both stories rely on a similar premise: in both cases, the narrator has a hidden connection to his current murder investigation. In “Broken Harbor” the 40-something detective, as a teenager, spent summers at a seaside area that has since been turned into an overambitious, aborted housing development that is the scene of his current investigation. While something terrible happened to him there, it is clearly unconnected to the case at hand, except perhaps in the general sense that some places have bad mojo. “In the Woods” offers a less subtle version of the same idea: the 30-something narrator not only grew up in the same housing development where he is currently investigating the murder of a 12-year-old, he himself as a 12-year-old experienced the mysterious disappearance of his two friends, a case that was never solved and that left him with traumatic amnesia about the episode.

That no one would remember him or connect him to the case two decades earlier is unlikely, yet the story succeeds in making it at least plausible and on some level psychologically satisfying: His parents immediately sent him to boarding school, to get away from the publicity and the memories and the horrors of the case. Nowhere in Ireland seeming distant enough, they sent him to England, where he acquired an English accent, began using his middle name, and otherwise reinvented himself. When he returned to Ireland with the newly acquired ambition of becoming a detective (inspired by watching American crime shows), after six years in boarding school and two years of doing nothing in particular in London, he is someone else. Or so he imagines.

The “Broken Harbor” detective is tightly wound, self-contained and close to no one, yet secretly longs for human contact; this tension makes him interesting and appealing even though he is outwardly unlikeable, and the gradual revelations about his inner life emerge convincingly. This is a character who has earned his torment. The “Woods” detective, by contrast, likes and trusts his (female) partner. Their relationship is almost too perfect. And this is the first thing that makes me nervous. The logic of story-telling demands change; where can a great relationship go but south?

Second, I begin almost at once to feel the narrator is keeping something from us. He’s a good-looking man with no apparent girlfriend; his partner is a cute girl with no apparent boyfriend. People in and out of work are constantly assuming they are a couple, yet their relationship is teasing and sibling-like, and they seem fine with this. Are they? I would hardly subscribe to the notion that men and women cannot be friends without sexual attraction entering into the picture, yet something is off, and this sense of offness is infecting everything else. But if the narrator is sexually attracted to his partner (as I feel the logic of the story impels him to be), he is doing a damn fine job hiding it from himself.

I wrote the above some days ago, when I was about 1/3 of the way into the book. Now I am nearly 2/3 of the way through, and my impressions are astonishingly little changed. We haven’t advanced too far in understanding, either in the murder cases (both the old and the new) or the relationship between Detectives Ryan and Maddox. The narrator is amazingly lacking in self-awareness; additionally, neither of them seem to be very competent detectives. (The one break in the case has come from the narrator suddenly recovering a memory from that lost time around the time his friends vanished.) This case is going nowhere slowly, and if I were their irascible boss O’Kelly I would have taken them off the case already.

Or is this simply Tana French playing with the conventions of the detective novel? Which is a construction as artful and artificial as a souffle; it succeeds to the degree it imitates reality without the tedium, banality and dead ends of a real murder mystery. This is what I keep wondering now: what kind of a game is she playing here, hiding behind Detective Ryan?

Ah, Detective Ryan. The farther I go into the story (into the woods), I like him less and less, and this is a bad thing; a successful unreliable narrator enlists your sympathy, and makes you complicit in his deception. Like a good con man, an unreliable narrator makes you want to believe. I am beginning to think Detective Ryan is not so much deceptive as deluded, and that’s a much trickier thing to pull off. The best examples I can think of are “Emma” (not a first-person narrator, obviously, but the narrator’s closeness to Emma makes it almost-not quite the same thing) and “The Remains of the Day” a book I need to read again, to remind myself how (and how successfully) Kazuo Ishiguro did it. Tana French seems (note the seems) to have given all the likeability and whatever insightfulness this detective team possesses to Maddox. But since Ryan apparently doesn’t understand his partner at all, the reader doesn’t either. It’s frustrating.

Yet I keep listening. I want — I need — to know where this finally goes, even though I know it won’t be anywhere nice. And for reasons of my own I am interested in first-person narrators who lack insight into their own feelings. There is something to learn here. Or perhaps the most encouraging thing is how very much better Tana French has gotten between “In the Woods” and “Broken Harbor.” There is hope for all of us pounding at the gates of American literature.


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