I waited to pick up a Tana French novel even though she is highly regarded around these parts. Late last year I commented on narfna’s review that I was hesitant to pick up another author who writes an ongoing series (I’ve got the Inspector Gamache books to contend with) and that’s true enough. But I think another component was that I knew French wrote gritty, hard-boiled crime novels and I just wasn’t in the mood for those, no matter the quality of the writing (the Gamache books are much more on the cozy end of the spectrum most of the time). But I’m damn glad that I put that aside to pick up French’s latest, the standalone The Searcher because good god can this woman write.
Even knowing that this book is slower paced and less twisting than her other books I can see the places where she would do that, if she wasn’t meditating on the Western format here and embracing its slower ways. The Searcher gives us a classic stoic loner in retired Chicago detective Cal Hooper living in the rather remote village of Artnakelty, Ireland. While still on the relatively young side for retirement (Cal put his papers in when he hit his 25 years so is in his late 40s) Cal’s plans are to fix up the decaying cottage he’s bought, to walk the mountains, learn the rhythms of the village, and to put some space between who he was on the job and who he is now. Cal is doing okay with that plan until a local kid comes to him for help, Trey’s older brother Brendan is missing, and Trey can’t find anyone that cares enough to help find out what happened, and thinks the retired American Cop is their best bet. Cal finds himself pulled in, if only for wanting to keep Trey out of trouble, but as he starts to poke around the edges of Brendan’s disappearance it quickly becomes clear that something is wrong in the community, and he must find out what, even if it brings trouble to his door.
In lesser hands Cal would be a cypher. But French is not lesser hands. We receive the narration from Cal and for the first 30 or so pages I was worried about being in his head, wondering if there would be enough depth. I should never have worried; Cal is an incredibly nuanced creation. Cal (and the other main cast) is a fully realized character in that French layers him with habits, characteristics, and an inner dialogue that flesh out the core of the man, even if he is no longer sure he can trust his own instincts. Cal is a quiet man who has abandoned the city for the rural in an effort to get away from himself and the world. But he is also a man with a code and does his best to live by it.
What I loved about French’s characterization is that she uses the physical surroundings of each character to inform them, almost as much – if not more – than what they do or say. This is maybe the most evident in Lena. She is sparingly in the novel, but Cal’s visit to her home solidifies instantly who she is, where her motivations lie, and what her personal code is. French writes such lived in spaces and peppers in small details that tell a larger truth, and in turn speak truth about the characters. The book is a whole mood, and the spaces add to it.
French is poking at a lot of different things in The Searcher, a not too small one is how community grows to include newcomers, but also turns its back on those it deems unworthy. Trey is ignored more for the sins of their father than for their own actions, Brendan’s disappearance (seemingly) carries little weight as young people take off all the time not to mention his and Trey’s father’s up and leaving. Cal finds himself in cyclical ins and outs with his neighbors and the men down at the pub, all for asking questions that should have straightforward answers, but don’t.
There is a ton I’m not talking about here, I’m sure someone is going to write an absolute stunning thesis on what French accomplishes in this book. The Searcher is full of morally ambiguous characters and their actions that leave you ruminating, but that’s a good thing. I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent reading, and thinking about what I read and how it felt. It is now time to go put In the Woods on my to read list, French has another reader.
Bingo Square: Landscape (the cover portrays rolling fields, as does the title page, let alone how integral the surrounding landscape is to the story.)