Retired Chicago police detective Cal Hooper looks back on his life – divorced, stuck in a job that makes him increasingly uncomfortable – and decides to buy a fixer-upper in the small town of Artnakelty, Ireland. As he’s working on his house he’s approached by Trey, a twelve year old from a family widely regarded as no good by the villagers. Trey asks Cal to look into the disappearance of his older brother and Cal, reluctantly, starts to to investigate. But he’s an outsider in a town where people never leave and where everyone knows each other. Soon, other things start to go wrong and it’s clear to Cal that the town does not want him to know what happened to the boy.
I never know quite how to feel about Tana French’s books. She’s a gifted writer and the mysteries she writes are never predictable, the characters rarely flat. They don’t always hit home for me, though. The Secret Place, the last of hers that I read, seemed to get lost in wistful teenage melancholy a bit too often, and Broken Harbour was so depressing that I wish I hadn’t read it. She knows what she’s doing, though, and the fast-paced thriller genre could do with someone who takes a more pensive approach.
The Searcher does the same thing. French leaves the familiar battlegrounds of Dublin for the closed ranks of a small countryside town, making Cal out to be something akin to the new Sheriff in town battling the criminal elements who’ve had their way for too long. It’s more complex than that, though. The locals lean heavily on the yokel stereotype – a bit too much, sometimes – but are shown to be cunning and knowledgeable early on. They welcome Cal as long as he does exactly what he’s expected to do, and as long as he lives up to their expectations of him. He’s welcomed into their ranks but cast out at the same time, always the newcomer, the foreigner; they’ll share drinks with him at the pub while they give him warnings about minding his own business subtly enough that even Cal has trouble picking up on what is being said, precisely.
Yet Cal is a tenacious bastard with a finely tuned antenna, precisely honed after years of inner-city policing in Chicago. He gets dragged into the mess against his will; he has an accurate sense of the danger he’s in but seems incapable of predicting the outcome nonetheless, and his subtle detective work isn’t lost on a town that has made subtlety into an art form.
Cal’s character occasionally comes dangerously close to the tough-but-fair grizzled detective type, but it befits the novel. The same goes for his nosy neighbour Mart, who seems to have come straight out of Sean’s Book of Irish Cliches. The villains are shady and uninteresting; they’re mostly kept on the background. It’s Trey, tough but vulnerable, tenacious and full of determination and rage, who keeps things compelling.
There’s a sour, ominous undercurrent throughout the book that I didn’t entirely enjoy and at times, it dragged on a little bit long for me. And this being Tana French I was fully prepared for a sad, depressing, everybody-dies-and-nothing-changes kind of ending. I’m happy that this didn’t happen. At the same time it goes against the fiber of the book. Somehow, I cannot seem to make up my mind about whether I mind or not.