There are two potential explanations for why Tana French’s “literary thriller” In The Woods portrays human interaction and detective work how it does. The first is that she read Erving Goffman’s microsociology work, internalizing its principles. Alternatively, she trained and worked for over a decade as an actor.
Goffman is famous for the dramaturgical metaphor at the center of his (and Kenneth Burke’s) social theory. People are performers working to maintain a “front” or “face”—a definition of who they are and what they’re up to. Personhood, following its Latin roots in “persona” (“mask”), is taken as role-play. Costuming is strategically chosen to advance certain meanings and interpretations; sets and backdrops are used to reinforce this definition, perhaps establishing a sense of gravitas, authority, or credential. Different roles carry different scripts, together collaborating on behalf of a team or group project: careful coordination occurs around the group’s “line” (that is, its shared, publicly advanced definition of the situation and of themselves, similar to a party line). Individual players typically differ on their individually held definitions, but suppress these private assessments for party line. There are significant gaps between “front-stage” and “back-stage” (or “on-stage” and “off-stage”) behavior—that is, between times in which players possess an awareness they are being observed, and when they are mostly out of public view or preparing for coordinated performances with fellow teammates. These performances definitionally alter how others see us—this is their entire function—which in turn alters how our observers behave: the debts they might feel they owe us, or us them; whether they follow or dismiss our advice, and oblige or reject our requests; what freedoms or affordances they might have speaking (for instance) to an officer of the law versus a next-door neighbor. Our appearance also affects how they appear to us, our performance their performance: how we represent ourselves determines whether (to use mixed metaphors) they show their bellies or put up walls, whether they are honest or deceive us.
In The Woods follows two detectives—two teammates—Rob and Cassie, as they conduct a murder investigation with strange connections to Rob’s traumatic childhood past. And its fundamental metaphor for detective work is dramaturgy. “Come on, let’s get back in character,” Rob tells Cassie at one point, preparing for an interview. “That’s our cue,” he says later on, during a smoke break with Cassie, when their lead suspect arrives at HQ. Here, Rob’s using “cue” in the original, narrow dramaturgical sense: a signal for a back-stage actor to join the fray on-stage, or for an on-stage character to deliver a specific line (or begin a specific action, speech being a subset of action). But “cues”—in the broader, metaphorical sense of metonyms, or tells—are everywhere in police work, and it’s no coincidence that the theater term was appropriated for use in animal signaling theory. It is through cues that characters are inferred and performed, read and written, that we deduce types and update models. “Sam was flipping through papers and rubbing the back of his head. He was doing solid country cop, friendly and not too quick.”
But cues are constantly misleading . (Misleading us, misleading the detectives.) Even in banal ways, the world is not what it seems. Rob, visiting the titular woods, notices that
one [tree] had a broken piece of blue plastic rope heavily knotted around a high branch, a couple of feet dangling. It was frayed and mildewed and implied sinister Gothic history—lynch mobs, midnight suicides—but I knew what it was. It was the remnant of a tire swing.
Inferences that Rob and Cassie make are regularly undermined or subverted—although French does play favorites, giving Cassie most of the correct predictions and psychological reads, and painting Rob as the blind male fool. In his narration, Rob treats certain cues or social expressions, of his fellow characters, as sure signs or tells—he reifies the surrogates as if they were the thing surrogate, almost forgetting that he has taken an inferential step to begin with. Here is a description of Jonathan Devlin; Rob is certain the signs show that Devlin is about to confess, but he is proven innocent by later events:
Almost imperceptibly, something I recognized was happening to Jonathan. There’s a specific crumbling in the mouth and spine, a sagging as though the underlying musculature is dissolving to water, that every detective knows: it belongs to the instant before a suspect confesses, as he finally and almost with relief lets his defenses fall away.
In social interaction, we are only ever/always in a tangled wood: looking for markers, never totally certain which way to head. Sherlock Holmes’s wetdream of perfect inference is just that, a fantasy: in real life, there is rarely enough info to be sure. Signs are inherently ambiguous, and can be resolved in multiple directions. There are typically several or many causal events which may have given rise to, and compress down to, a given metonym-as-cue. Clouds of missing and mis-information surround the speculator.
Before interviews, the detectives spend enormous amounts of time preparing their lines, agreeing upon their roles (sympathetic / hostile, good cop / bad cop) and arranging a set:
[Sam] pulled over a chair and sat down next to Cassie, and they started discussing how to go at Damien. They had never interrogated anyone together before; their voices were tentative, earnest, deferring to each other and rising into open-ended little question marks: Do you think we should…? What if we…?
…They had made the [interview] room as cozy as humanly possible: coats and bags and scarves thrown on chairs, the table strewn with coffee and sugar packets and mobile phones and a carafe of water and a plate of sticky Danishes from the cafe outside the castle grounds. Damien, bedraggled in the same oversized sweatshirt and combats [from yesterday]… hugged himself and stared round, wide-eyed; after the alien chaos of a jail cell, this must have seemed a bright haven to him, safe and warm and almost homey… Cassie and Sam were chattering [performatively], perching on the table and bitching about the weather and offering Damien milk…
They took him through safe little details first. Cassie’s voice, Sam’s, weaving together dexterously, soothing as lullabies: How did you get out of the house without waking up your mam? Yeah? I used to do that, too, when I was a teenager… Had you done it before? God this coffee’s horrible, do you want a Coke or something instead? …Damien was relaxing. Once he even laughed, a pathetic little breath.
During the interview, the detectives must discretely, privately communicate. And they do this by means of confirming reactions or selectively signaling one of a narrow set of anticipated meanings. Because these signals rely on enormous amounts of background context, and are highly ambiguous on their own, they are effectively encoded. (Just like a very simple algorithm may show complex behavior when placed in a complex environment.) If both have agreed that they must pivot to hard-ball at some point, and both have individual professional experience that has taught them at what point a suspect is most receptive to hard-ball questioning (that is, what external signs and cues are displayed), then they can merely make eye contact when these cues emerge, as a means of sync’ing up the switch. When the pragmatics of context are well-understood and shared by all parties, communication can be breathlessly efficient and concise.
Everything described thus far is central to Goffman’s expression games and strategic interaction framework. Detective work, however, is central to these theories; police interrogations, sleuthing, and spies are all core examples in his 1969 essays “Expression Games” and “Strategic Interaction.” The relevant question to ask is, are there important structural similarities between detective work and everyday interaction?
French clearly believes there are, and Rob’s professional outlook bleeds into how he interacts with people more broadly—not just witnesses and suspects, but strangers, friends, roommates, colleagues. Adult life is full of “subtext and emotional cross-currents,” and requires learned skill in its little “arts and negotiations.” Cassie and Rob plot and scheme and play their superintendent, O’Kelly, just as systematically as they trap suspected murderers.
Cassie’s mobile rang. “Oh for God’s sake,” she said, looking at the screen. “Hello sir… Hello? …Sir? …Bloody phones.” She hung up.
“Reception?” I said coldly. “The fucking reception is fine,” she said. “He just wanted to know when we’d be back and what was taking us so long, and I didn’t feel like talking to him.”
My mobile rang. “Ah, fuck, man,” we both said, in unison. I did the bad-reception routine, and we spent the rest of the drive making a list of possible lines of inquiry. O’Kelly likes lists; a good one might distract him from the fact we hadn’t rung him back.
[We snuck into the office] as quietly as we could… I shoved the file under my jacket, in case I ran into O’Kelly… and went back up to the squad room. Cassie was at her computer; she had left the lights off so O’Kelly wouldn’t spot them.
And when Rob comes home one day to his unlikeable roommate Heather:
“How are you?” [I asked Heather.] “Oh, I’m all right,” Heather said, pulling her pink fleece dressing gown more closely around herself. The martyred tone meant I had two options: I could say, “Great,” and go into my room and close the door, in which case she would sulk and bang pans for days to register her displeasure at my lack of consideration, or I could say, “Are you OK?” in which case I would have to spend the next hour listening to a blow-by-blow account of the outrage perpetrated by her boss or her sinuses or whatever it was that was currently making her feel hard done by. Fortunately I have an Option C, though it has to be saved for emergencies. “Are you sure?” I said. “There’s this awful flu going around at work, and I think I’m coming down with it. I hope you don’t get it too.”
See: “The martyred tone meant,” followed by the tone’s entailment: what would follow given different responses to it. See: the frequency-dependent selection dynamics of certain alibis, which can be broken out only so many times before arousing suspicion, and thus are saved like precious resources until fully needed. On that note, Rob reflects that
the one joy of migraines is… they make a perfect excuse: they’re disabling, they’re not your fault, they can last as long as you need them to and nobody can prove you don’t have one.
It’s stamp-collecting like this—the little social maneuvers and deflections, the micro-tactics of excuses and justifications—that makes French’s writing so charming.
“Are you OK?” Sophie asked me. “I’m fine,” I said. “I just need coffee.” The joy of the new hip, happening, double-espresso Dublin is that you can blame any strange mood on coffee deprivation.
The usual, crude way of talking about this stuff is that Rob is “lying.” Rob knows the truth, and knowingly says otherwise—knowingly misleads his interlocutor away from that truth. (Sometimes philosophy, in the throes of conceptual-analytic impulse, has reified this crude view.) But it is far more accurate to say that this line, this justification for his hazy, moody energy, is truth-agnostic. Rob just needs an excuse, any excuse, so he came up with one. The performed line can well turn out to be true:
I still felt weird, light-headed, as though my eyes weren’t focusing clearly enough to take in the image. Maybe I really do need coffee, I thought.
The thing about characters and roles is that we sustain them in long-term ways, that they have real effects even when we are not actively trying to deploy them. Rob reflects:
I sometimes thought the brass assumed I was a good detective in the mindless preprogrammed way that some men will assume a tall, slim, blond woman is beautiful even if she has a face like a hyperthyroid turkey: because I have all the accessories. I have a perfect BBC accent, picked up at boarding school as protective camouflage, and all that colonization takes awhile to wear off: even though the Irish will cheer for absolutely any team playing against England, and I know a number of pubs where I couldn’t order a drink without risking a glass to the back of the head, they still assume that anyone with a stiff upper lip is more intleligent, better educated and generally more likely to be right. On top of this I am tall, with a bony, rangy build that can look lean and elegant if my suit is cut just right, and fairly good-looking in an offbeat way. Central Casting would definitely think I was a good detective, probably the brilliant maverick loner who risks his neck fearlessly and always gets his man.
What’s more, this third-person, mediated self-image ends up actively altering his behavior. “I felt that this had been an excellent decision,” Rob reflects: “I suppose it felt, at the time, like the kind of thing that enigmatic Central Casting maverick would have done.” Elsewhere, this outside image even changes Rob’s feelings:
I thought of how we must look to [the young trainees]: how much older, how aloof, how much more confident in the little arts and negotiations of adulthood. It steadied me somehow, the image of two Murder detectives with their practiced faces giving away nothing…
Giving away nothing: the competent detective is not merely trained in the arts of reading; he is trained in the arts of writing.
Detective work and police interrogations have also been central to my own thinking around strategy and selection games. One of the insights of the selection game is that evaluation is partially adversarial: candidate and evaluator are not goal-aligned; the candidate’s interest lies in selection (passing the test) and the evaluator’s in selecting the most capable candidate (successfully administering the test, and effectively screening candidates). Thus the evaluator must often be deceptive, must stay illegible. The nature of their tests must stay mysterious, to protect against cheap and degenerate play. They must often hide the very fact that a test is occurring, or mislead candidates as to their epistemic state, or the kind of responses which would constitute passing. Thus Rob writes of the job:
[Truth] is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her… What we do is crude, crass and nasty. A girl gives her boyfriend an alibi for the evening when we suspect him of robbing a north-side Centra and stabbing the clerk. I flirt with her at first, telling her I can see why he would want to stay home when he’s got her… Then I tell her we’ve found marked bills from the till in his classy white tracksuit bottoms, and he’s claiming that she went out that evening and gave them to him when she got back. I do it so convincingly, with such delicate crosshatching of discomfort and compassion at her man’s betrayal, that finally her faith in four shared years disintegrates like a sand castle and through tears and snot, while her man sits with my partner in the next interview room saying nothing except “Fuck off, I was home with Jackie,” she tells me everything from the time he left the house to the details of his sexual shortcomings.
Of course, calling this a pursuit of truth is romanticizing what’s actually be optimized for, which is a confession, a closed case. Closing cases is where all the professional incentives lie, and all the professional pressures—from above, from below. Because the detective is in a selection game—to keep his job, be promoted up, get better caseloads, better shifts, less gruntwork—and because he wants respect from his colleagues, his sergeant—he cannot help case closure drawing him in, attracting his concern and attention and energy.
So the detectives spin up stories, lead interviewees and suspects to confidences and confessions like a salesman pushing a pitch. The stories the detectives construct are mirrored by the stories Rosalind (spoiler: an adversarial witness) constructs to manipulate Damien and Rob. These stories win in part through the seductions of value clarity, in part because they play into desire, play into archetype and myth. Of Rosalind and Damien’s romance, Ryan writes:
It was easy to imagine, easy and seductively sweet: a blanket around their shoulders and a country sky packed with stars, and moonlight making the rough landscape of the dig into a delicate, haunted thing. No doubt the secrecy and the complications had only added to the romance of it all. It carried the primal, irresistible power of myth: the cruel father, the fair maiden imprisoned in her tower, hedged in by thorns and calling for rescue. They had made their own nocturnal, stolen world, and to Damien it must have been a very beautiful one.
 Rob, reader that he is, is endeared by complex texts, texts which operate at different levels or signal conflicting messages:
Sophie is my favorite crime-scene tech. She is slim and dark and demure, and on her the white shower cap looks like she should be bending over wounded soldiers’ beds with cannon fire in the background, murmuring something soothing and giving out sips of water from a canteen. In actual fact, she is quick and impatient and can put anyone from superintendents to prosecutors in their place with a few crisp words. I like incongruity.
 See, for instance, the detectives’ behavior in the following interview. See how they’re not just playing Damien, their chief suspect, into a confession—but also anticipating and gearing appearances around the readings of future juries or judges, with their end line about coercion?
“It’s not pretty,” [Cassie told Damien.] “We know what happened, the guy knows we know, but he’s scared to confess. He thinks going to jail is the worst thing that could happen to him. God, is he ever wrong. Every day for the rest of his life, he wakes up in the morning and it hits him all over again, like it was yesterday. Every night he’s scared to go to sleep because of the nightmares. He keep thinking it has to get better, but it never does.”
“And sooner or later,” I said, from the shadows behind [Damien], “he has a nervous breakdown, and he ends up spending the next few years in a padded cell, wearing pajamas and drugged up to the eyeballs. Or he ties a rope to the banisters one evening and hangs himself.”
…This was bullshit, by the way… Human beings, as I know better than most, can get used to anything. Over time, even the unthinkable gradually wears a little niche for itself in your mind and becomes just something that happened. But Katy had been dead a month, and Damien hadn’t had time to learn this.
…Cassie gave [Damien’s] arm one last little pat and took her hand away: nothing that could look like coercion.