I liked her last book, The Witch Elm, but I loved this one. This is also a character study as well as a mystery/crime novel (that isn’t part of her Dublin Murder series), but here the protagonist is a former cop from Chicago who retired and decided to try and find peace in the Irish countryside. He bought a beaten down farmhouse and has spent a lot of time trying to fix it up, and he still has a long ways to go. We join Cal when he has been there a couple of months, just long enough to become somewhat familiar with the locals and their customs, enough to know that he doesn’t know hardly anything about his new home or its inhabitants.
The plot slowly gains speed as we learn about Cal and his new town of Ardnakelty, and as a stray kid shows up at Cal’s house and asks Cal to find his missing brother. The kid, Trey, is convinced that the brother, Brendan, has been kidnapped by someone, even though everyone in town believes that Brendan has just taken off for the city for one reason or another.
There’s a lot of inner conflict here. Cal left behind his job and his country to try and reckon with his own mind, and there is a LOT in here about Cal contemplating his old career and what it did to him. It’s kind of uncanny that this was published now when French must have written it long before summer 2020 and all the media coverage of police brutality in the US exploded because of the murder of George Floyd. Cal isn’t a 100% good guy, and one of the reasons he left the force is that he felt that he could no longer trust himself to always know what the right thing was, let alone to do it, no matter the reason (though it’s heavily implied the job had some consequences for him).
French plays with Western tropes all throughout this novel, and Cal is very much in the mold of the quiet man, the stoic loner come to the wilderness to get away from himself and the world. One of the things that French gets to play with here in having an ex-cop be her protagonist instead of a current one, is that she can play a lot more with shades of grey. It allows her to explore Cal’s feelings about his moral code, about the job, and about what it did to him with a freedom that a character who’s still in the trenches doesn’t have.
SPOILERS I’m not sure how anyone could interpret this book as “pro-cop,” although I’ve seen stray comments over the past month. This puzzles me. I want to visit their reviews and tell them to brush up on their reading comprehension. For me, this book reads like French reconsidering her choice to portray cops in such a heroic, if flawed, light for six books; not to say that she is now anti-cop, either, just that a new perspective from her comes in here. If anything, she’s just pro-human, and always interested in exploring the psychology of any given situation.
Cal’s inner monologue heavily implies that being on the job in Chicago, the things he was asked to do and justify, fucked him up. He outright states that he no longer trusts his own moral code, and he proves this to us by engaging in illegal activity in pursuit of this case, and not calling the cops himself when he finds out who the killers are. His goal is not to seek out justice for Brendan’s murder, but to provide peace of mind for Brendan’s sister, Trey (a twist I really liked), and this in itself shows that he no longer believes that the legal system is able to provide the right kind of answers in all situations. (The only cop we actually meet in the book, unless you count Cal remembering his partner almost killing someone on the streets of Chicago, is portrayed as likably hapless and ineffective.) END SPOILERS
I think, ultimately, French is interested in bringing nuance into everything she writes about, and she very much succeeds here. I was extremely satisfied by the ending of this book, and where the characters all end up, and I held such affection for three of them in particular (Cal and Trey among those three). If you go in to this book expecting something more slow and considered, you might come out of if liking it as much as I did.