Monday, July 22, 2019

In A Dark, Dark Wood

“In a dark, dark wood, there was a dark, dark house. And in the dark, dark house, there was a dark, dark room.” This theme is common among most horror and thriller stories going back generations. We are told from an early age that the woods and dark places are scary and that we should avoid them. A remote house in the middle of dense woods is the setting for In A Dark, Dark Wood. In A Dark, Dark Wood is a 2015 thriller/mystery novel written by Ruth Ware. It quickly became a New York Times bestseller and was named one of the best books of the year by NPR.

In a Dark, Dark Wood

The premise of the book is this: a reclusive writer names Leonora, Nora to her friends, is invited to a hen do, or as its known in the US a bachelorette party, by her friend Clare. Given that she hasn’t seen Clare in ten years, she’s shocked and a little confused that she’s been invited. She somewhat reluctantly agrees to attend. The event is being held at a remote house in the woods owned by a relative of one of the bridesmaids.  As the weekend progresses, it soon becomes clear that not everything is as it seems and the group may not be alone in the woods. Someone may not make it out of the woods alive.

The story is very much told in two parts. There are the events of the bachelorette party and the events that take place after. Someone dies and the “after” storyline depicts the police trying to determine what exactly happened, along with the narrator. The transition back and forth can be a little jarring, but it prevents the reader from learning too much information at any one time.
The writing is pretty good with Ware doing a noteworthy job building suspense as time goes on. The book isn’t badly written, the plot makes sense, and the reveal doesn’t come out of nowhere. If anything, the opposite is true. My criticism comes from two fronts. Predictability and a reliance on convenience.

First, predictability. I was able to accurately guess who the killer was early on. Most of the characters are archetypes that serve a single purpose. It’s clear, once the characters are gathered together, who the killer is and who the "fake-out" murderer is. The character that’s set-up to seem like the killer is painted early on as a nervous wreck, so it becomes clear that person isn’t the killer, due to how obvious it seems. The only thing that I didn’t predict was a detail about Nora’s backstory that is only terribly important as it relates to the killer’s motive. Nora’s backstory is focused on a little too much and, in the end, it exists to make the motive seem more legitimate. There’s nothing wrong with a story being predictable, I was just hoping for more.

The plot relies a lot on convenience. Lenora is in a car accident after the murder, which means she doesn’t remember what happened. The unreliable narrator angle is why the dual storylines work, but the decision to have an unreliable narrator, and the reason why she’s unreliable, is still incredibly convenient. The way the victim ends up at the house is based entirely on convenience. The murder was planned, but how it happened cycles back to one or two very specific events that could've gone differently, preventing the murder altogether. Patterns of behavior are ignored until they suddenly become relevant when the plot needs them to. I understand the need for convenience and red herrings, but there comes a point where the story is too reliant on coincidence.

I read this book on the beach and I liked it, but I wasn’t thrilled by it. It didn’t blow my mind like many others have. I suppose my biggest gripe with it is that there was potential for a compelling story, but it never manifested. The setting in the middle of the woods never gets taken full advantage of. I picked up the book expecting a supernatural thriller or even just a creepy thriller. I didn’t get that. Instead, it was a fairly by-the-numbers murder mystery without that much actual mystery.

Overall rating: 2.5 stars

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