Book Review: In a Dark Dark Wood: A Chilling Mystery You’ve Read Before
A complex, unreliable woman wakes up in a hospital room covered in blood and lacerations. Police guard her door, and racked by acute memory loss, she starts to worry that she may have committed a very bad crime. Chapters alternate between past and present as she pieces together the truth, while we as readers never know who to trust. Sound familiar? Unreliable narrators have long been staples of the psychological mystery genre, but lately they’ve felt more like a gimmick, the kind of device we’ve seen in everything from Gone Girl to the Girl on the Train. When I first picked up Ruth Ware’s debut novel, In a Dark Dark Wood (following Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram recommendation), it sounded like the story was going to be no different.
A few chapters in, this time flashing to the past, I’m happy to say I spoke too soon. The unreliable woman in question is Leonora Shaw, a reclusive crime writer drawn from her routine when she receives an email invite to a childhood friend’s bachelorette party. Reluctant at first, she accepts, and thus begins an atmospheric and tense thriller that feels less like a Gone Girl rehash and more like an Agatha Christie mystery for the modern age.
Like Christie, everything in the novel is tightly plotted. Every detail has purpose; every character hides a secret and every piece adds to the puzzle. Ware sets the scene — a modern glass house buried deep in the woods, a supposedly empty shotgun hanging on the wall. She assembles the cast of suspects — everyone from a playwright to a worrisome young mom, a maid of honor obsessed with pleasing the bride, and the bride herself, Nora’s former best friend who has a manipulative, controlling personality. Their connections to each other seem hazy at first; all characters reveal some relation to the bride or groom, but their full back stories are mysteriously concealed. Then, of course, there’s the situation — a bachelorette party Nora is reluctant to attend. As the weekend progresses, party games tease out backstories and strained relationships. Slowly, tensions rise, and the atmosphere intensifies. It appears that someone is ready to snap. Scenes such as a seance are effectively spooky while images of footprints in the snow or sounds of an intruder lurking around the cabin make you want to glance over your shoulder. The plot is swift and twisty, the revelations are satisfying, and the ending is clever. Like Christie, every answer lies in plain sight, but the “aha” moment waits for the end. It’s simply a matter of putting the pieces together. The story itself isn’t particularly groundbreaking; you’ve read narratives like this before, but the mystery is still an irresistible page-turner, a whodunnit you’ll stay hunched over long into the dark, dark night.
Want more? Any Christie classic will do as will the excellent TV adaption, And Then There Were None that aired last year.