So this is the first time I am participating in Bingo and I am so excited! I love the card and I have finished a few books, so I am ready to go….
I was out of the ‘mystery’ frame of mind for some time. I think, for a while, I was concerned that many mystery series that I enjoyed portrayed police officers in a way that didn’t sit well with me given so much police inaction and violent action around the US, where I live. I have eased into some mysteries, including The Searcher, by Tara French, which I will discuss, below, but the mysteries I will review in the next few weeks all wrestle with the militarization of police and the contentious and often-times racist relationships between low income and underserved communities and the police.
Cal Hooper, the protagonist in The Searcher, is a retired police detective from Chicago who moved to a dilapidated home in rural western Ireland to start over. He has characteristics that appear in many detective novels: he is white, he is stoic, has a recent divorce, a somewhat distant child, a traumatic work-related memory (or more), and so on. He is working hard to repair the old farmstead, which got for a steal, and slowly getting involved in the lives folks from the community of Ardnakelty. He fishes some and lives pretty simply, occasionally taking his neighbor, Malt, up on invitations to go to the pub. Most of his communication early in the book is with the rooks that nest nearby; they are cackling, murmuring, or swearing as he tries to bribe them with treats. This is one of the threads I actually would have liked more of, as the rooks were delightful! (I suppose the role of the rooks is overtaken by the busybody roles of the villagers that he meets.) In the course of his home renovation, he meets a kid, Trey, from the bad side of town who begins to help him with his work. Trey has an ulterior motive and finally drums up the courage to ask him for help with a missing persons case. The rest of the novel follows Hooper as he investigates the mystery without the kinds of backup he was accustom to (badge, gun, etc.). While he is nosing around the tiny community, they are, naturally (as you will now if you ever lived in a small town!) investigating and observing him.
The mystery itself wasn’t really the point of this book, I would say. French seemed to be examining the deterioration of small rural towns and rural economies in Ireland. Most of her observations rang true for me, as I grew up on a farm in a small town in southern Indiana. Most of my classmates with some ability left the area to go to college or for a job and never have come back. Farmers lost their land as economic downturns, such as the ones I lived through in the 1970s and early ’80s, devastated family farms and pushing more people off farms and into towns or off to other places. The fabric of the community shifted forever. Mart, the elderly bachelor farmer who lives next door to Hooper, observes: When I was a young lad, we knew what we could want and how to get it, and we knew we’d have something to show for it at the end of the day. A crop, or a flock, or a house, or a family. There’s great strength in that. Now there’s too many things you’re told to want, there’s no way to get them all, and once you’re done trying, what have you got to show for it at the end? But Lena, a younger widow who stayed because she married a farmer, noted that a huge cultural problem exacerbated the flight because farmers were unwilling to leave their farms to their daughters, so girls had to go elsewhere for opportunities. Once the girls left, many boys followed.
The most challenging parts of the book for me revolve around Hooper himself and his backstory – his estrangement from his daughter and ex-wife and his early retirement from the police. Broadly, he is a man who thought he had a code – a hyper masculine code – which pushed him to take a job with the police and to interact with his family in a particular way. Over time, this clarity eroded and he feels disappointed and estranged and tired. On the one hand, I think French did a masterful job of fleshing in a caricature – look at any sheriff in old Westerns; and I recognize that this was the exercise she set for herself); on the other hand, I think we read about these kinds of men and their challenges and disappointments every day in the newspaper, so I’m not sure I would have bothered to read this, had I known. He is so disassociated from the people in Chicago that he was supposed to protect and serve (or not, thanks to the Supreme Court), that even when he describes an officer involved shooting (and is there a more passive description than this?) of a young black robbery suspect, which is a near miss, it is presented mostly as another in an accretion of disappointments (including sensitivity training at work and his daughter’s boyfriend’s insistence on the importance of correct language rather than (or maybe in addition to) correct action.
I think I may categorize this read as Gaslight, because of the gorgeously described rustic environment and the way that Hooper presents his worldview as somehow morally purer than ours when it really reflects a morality of privilege.