This is another standalone, and quite different again; a mystery infused with the spirit of a Western. The Searcher tells of 48-year-old Cal Hooper, a Chicago police officer who has taken early retirement and moved to the rural west of Ireland with the intention of doing up the crumbling house he has bought. He is befriended by Trey, a shy, skinny 13-year-old with a buzz-cut, who eventually reveals that his beloved 19-year-old brother Brendan has been missing for months and nobody, not Trey's family, the locals or even the police, seems bothered. Cal is drawn into to the unresolved case; is Brendan a genuine runaway? If so, was he running towards something, or away from something-or someone?
Into this setting, French drops a fish out of water: retired Chicago detective Cal Hooper, fleeing a punishing job and a fractious marriage. But peace proves to be elusive for Cal...
Cloistered, unfriendly communities are 10-a-penny in crime fiction, but few are realised with the textured detail that French supplies here; the alienated Cal proves to be one of her most distinctive protagonists.
Cal Hooper is a disillusioned former Chicago police officer who has left the force and moved to a remote village in the Irish countryside in an effort to find who he is again. “I got weary… bone weary,” he says, as “every morning got to be like waking up with the flu, knowing he had to trek miles up a mountain”... This is a standalone thriller from Tana French, author of the excellent Dublin Murder Squad books, and it finds her in barnstormingly good form.
If French’s popular ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ novels unfold like a long-form television series with multiple subplots and red herrings, The Searcher is appropriately cinematic, with the neat economy and momentum of a classic feature film. Like John Ford’s near namesake, it asks questions about moral codes, and the price to be paid for enacting justice outside the law.
There’s a residual snobbery, particularly when it comes to literary awards, that still sees crime fiction and literary novels as mutually exclusive. French has bridged that false divide from the beginning of her career, and The Searcher might just be the book that sees her properly recognised as one of our finest contemporary novelists, of any genre.
The local police don’t regard 19-year-old Brendan’s disappearance as suspicious, and the villagers are tight-lipped on the subject … The pace of Cal’s investigation takes a while to pick up, and most of the action is in the final third of the book, but as well as containing strong characters, beautiful descriptions and some genuinely eerie moments, The Searcher poses uncomfortable questions about morality, retribution and masculinity.
The theme of the outsider may not be novel, and the mood one of lowering suspense rather than of taut tension. Yet Tana French’s study of the compromises made by small communities is as compelling as her usual tales of the Dublin murder squad. The Searcher brings to mind Iain Banks’s The Crow Road and Leonardo Sciascia’s mafia classic The Day of the Owl, and bears comparison to both.
Cal has bought a dilapidated farmhouse, leaving behind a painful divorce and 25 years in the Chicago police department. When a local child turns up on his doorstep asking for his help in finding a missing elder sibling, Cal begins to suspect his new neighbours may not be the amiable innocents he took them for. French uses her rural setting brilliantly, creating a stifling sense of suspicion and raising questions about guilt and responsibility.
Already acknowledged as one of the finest writers of contemporary crime fiction, French has recently branched out from her successful Dublin Murder Squad series with two standalone novels.
Her first, The Wych Elm, was a bestseller, and this second is even better...
A story of redemption and friendship, love and betrayal, it is a work of great strength and beauty.
Where does “The Searcher” stand in the lineup of French’s books? It’s an outlier: not her most accessible but not to be missed. It’s unusually contemplative and visual, as if she literally needed this breath of fresh air. It steps back to examine the policing powers she has traditionally taken for granted. And it’s her foray into the natural world, which is so welcome right now. It’s also slower than some of her other books. But as Cal says in the folksy western voice he often affects here, “All’s you can do is your best.”