A FIRST IS CRUCIAL. It begins the story. Think of the first sentence you ever read. The one that led to the second. Think of your first friend, the one who brought you closer to your best friend. Or your first person, the one who leapt with you, eyes squeezed shut, into the terrifying abyss that is first love, but not great love. Think of the first bite that teased, but didn’t satisfy. The only thing firsts do is signal potential and stoke anticipation. They don’t fulfill a promise; they are the promise itself. Eventually you must let them go and move forward. And if you don’t let them go, they will haunt you forever.
By this reckoning, Ruth Ware’s first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, is simply prelude. She’s creating expectations for her second, and that’s unfair, because it is so hard to create one book, let alone two or more. For genre fiction, however, the first swing is important. It serves to familiarize the author with the contours of the form and reveals the pitfalls, unique to writer and genre, in order for those to be avoided during the next go-round. In a Dark, Dark, Wood, for example, shows that Ware can write a compulsively readable book. It is a perfect beach read. A person could up pick up the volume in the morning and finish it the same night. Unfortunately, however, a reader with even a passing familiarity with thrillers will guess both killer and mystery early in the story. The reader is then free to pick out the glaring plot holes in story, which is the exact opposite of what a mystery author wants.
In a Dark, Dark, Wood is about Leonora Shaw, a 26-year-old crime writer who lives in London, loves running, and fancies herself a recluse — though she’s not particularly reclusive. One day Leonora receives an email invite, via her professional website, to attend a bachelorette party for Clare, her childhood best friend whom she hasn’t seen in a decade because of some mysterious thing that happened in their past. The story is told from Leonora’s point of view, so the reader only has access to her version of events.
When we meet Leonora — who desperately wants to be called Nora — she is, literally and figuratively, running from danger. Then she opens her eyes and finds herself in the hospital, bruised and battered, without any memory of how she got there. She has a sinking suspicion, however, that she’s to blame. “What have I done?” she asks herself on the first page, though it isn’t clear why she thinks she’s done anything wrong. Nor is it clear at first why the police think she might be any more interesting to the investigation than the other hen party guests. As far as the reader knows, Nora has no history of violence or horrific decision-making. Indeed, she’s a successful author who has just one great and serious flaw: her emotional maturity stalled at sixteen years old. Nora is still hung up on her high school boyfriend, James Cooper, while she alternately resents and worships her high school best friend, Clare. She has not moved on from her “firsts.”
To Nora’s credit, she’s aware of her specific brand of pathetic. “I thought I had long since stopped giving a fuck what Clare Cavendish thought of me,” she grumbles to the reader. “I realized, as I walked slowly back to the kitchen, that I was wrong.” A few pages later, she expresses similar self-loathing in regard to James:
Yes — I am fully aware that this makes me sound like the biggest loser in existence: the girl who meets a boy at age sixteen and obsesses over him for the next ten bloody years. Believe me, no one is more aware of that than me. If I met myself in a bar and got talking, I would despise myself too.
Inexplicably, Nora only learns Clare is marrying James on the first night of the bachelorette weekend. James is now a famous actor — think Ryan Gosling if Ryan Gosling did mostly theater work — and shares at least one friend with Nora, so it’s a little weird she didn’t know about the engagement from friendly gossip or trashy tabloids. Regardless, the knowledge sends Nora into a full-on emotional spiral-cum-time-warp. She behaves as if she’s still in high school. During a drinking game, for example, a guest meanly asked everyone who had slept with James to fess up and drink. Nora is beside herself:
My hand was trembling as I tossed back the drink. Then I got up and walked out into the hallway, my cheeks burning, and suddenly feeling very, very drunk. … For a minute, I hated them all: Nina for goading me with her horrible needling questions, Flo and Tom for gawping as I drank. I hated Clare for forcing me to come. And most of all I hated James, for asking Clare to marry him, for starting this whole chain off. I even hated poor blameless Melanie, just for being there.
Nora then dramatically locks herself in the bathroom. How very very.
The book’s major shortcoming is the reader has to take too much on faith. Nora says she and James had a great love, so having no other proof, the reader must believe it’s true. Clare is pathologically manipulative, we’re told, but there is no real evidence until later in the novel, when the various ways Clare has manipulated a situation are explained.
However, Ware excels at setting a scene and pacing the tension. She’s set her story in a secluded glass house exposed on all sides to a deep, dark wood. The scene reflects the book’s title, which has been borrowed from a traditional Halloween tale:
In a dark, dark wood there was a dark, dark house;
And in a dark, dark house there was a dark, dark room;
And in a dark, dark room there was a dark, dark cupboard;
And in the dark, dark box there was … a skeleton!
The reference gives the story an appropriate eeriness, like a scary story whispered in the dark. So even if the main character is a bit childish and the tension between the characters feels a smidge forced, the pressure does build over the course of the story. By the time the big climactic scene arrives, the reader knows what’s coming, but we still want to see Ware pull it off — and she does. It’s a ripping good time.
This novel isn’t just a first novel about life’s big firsts. Ware’s debut is also one of the introductory offerings by Simon and Schuster’s new publishing imprint, Scout Publishing. In a press release, Scout claims to “be at the forefront of contemporary literary fiction.” Even though In a Dark, Dark Wood was tapped by Book Expo America’s buzz books of 2015, it doesn’t rise to the level of literary; rather, it is good, pulpy fun about the pain that comes from releasing the younger self from the tyranny of first friends, first loves, first sex, and, one supposes, first murders. For readers of mysteries and thrillers, this one won’t keep you guessing, but it will keep you company on a long, lazy day.