Scout Press is a new imprint from Gallery Books “dedicated to being on the lookout for modern storytellers.” They’ve roared onto the scene with two releases, Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Woods and (now Longlist National Book Award Nominee) Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family. I received a promo e-mail about Scout Press before these two were released, and like a chump I passed them over. Once I heard the endless roaring buzz of praise, I picked up In A Dark, Dark Woods on audio, and listened everywhere, all the time, unable to stop.
Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood sounds like many things–don’t confuse it with Into The Woods, the Broadway play adapted into a feature film, or master of mystery Tana French’s novel In The Woods. Ever since the Brothers Grimm put the grim in our fairy tales, the woods have been a nightmarish place to lose yourself and tap into the pulse of a canopied underworld severed from sunlight and all things good. In A Dark, Dark Wood acts as an homage to so much that lives in the dark of our nightmares–ghosts, guns, unrequited loves, strangers prowling, phone lines cut, murders in the midst.
In this mystery, instead of wolves or headless horsemen, the woods brings horrors of a particularly modern variety. Reclusive author Leonora reluctantly agrees to attend a long lost school friend’s hen party (for us unaware Americans, that’s the British equivalent of a bachelorette party). The most majestic and notable part of this novel is the hen party’s setting, a glass house nestled amidst a muddy and isolated woods far out in the English countryside. Each attendee to the soiree feels like a performer, vulnerable and exposed in front of a vast expanse of trees. This is the type of isolated home found at the end of a muddy long drive, where cell reception blips from on bar to none, where the land line in the kitchen feels like a life line to the outside world.
The night turns strange quite quickly. Clare, the bride-to-be, has invited a ragtag bunch, with Leonora and her sarcastic sidekick Nina not necessarily adding to the party atmosphere. There’s new mother Melanie, who struggles to pull her eyes up from her phone, aghast at no reception. There’s flamboyant and coke-touting Tom, the hard partying token gay man at the celebration. And finally, there’s Flo. Flo worships Clare, dresses like Clare, and insists that Clare will have the best hen party ever. No matter what.
The isolated party in a strange glass house, fueled by alcohol and Flo’s intensity, quickly moves past social niceties and into the realm of something else. Leonora wakes up battered and brutalized in a hospital bed, police at her door. No longer in a glass house, no longer at a hen night. She takes us along in her struggle to remember what exactly turned a hen party into a much darker, more dangerous trip into the woods.
Ware’s building of suspense is magnificent here, especially in the first half of the novel. Unfortunately, amnesia plays a critical plot point near the end, which always tries my patience as a mystery lover. The writing here is so good though, that I’m willing to overlook this. I do hope Ware steers clear of such devices in her next book. The setting and characters build an unbearable, but irresistible paranoia, that makes In A Dark, Dark Wood an ideal mystery, a quick one to flip through then finish.
In A Dark, Dark Wood on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org
‘Scream’ Meets Agatha Christie In ‘A Dark, Dark Wood’ (npr.org)
Author Interview: Ruth Ware (auntagathas.com)
Finding thrills in ‘A Dark, Dark Wood’ (usatoday.com) – Finch’s USA Today review is much less tolerant of the amnesia device, and I don’t disagree with his points, I just still enjoyed the book.
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