Book review: ‘The Searcher’ by Tana French

Thanks, as always, to Net Galley and Viking for setting me up with a copy of The Searcher. Four out of five stars – which is still a high rating and I’d still very much recommend it! Read on for blurb and opinions…

The blurb

Cal Hooper thought a fixer-upper in a remote Irish village would be the perfect escape. After twenty-five years in the Chicago police force, and a bruising divorce, he just wants to build a new life in a pretty spot with a good pub where nothing much happens.

But then a local kid comes looking for his help. His brother has gone missing, and no one, least of all the police, seems to care. Cal wants nothing to do with any kind of investigation, but somehow he can’t make himself walk away.

Soon Cal will discover that even in the most idyllic small town, secrets lie hidden, people aren’t always what they seem, and trouble can come calling at his door.

My review

Tana French specialises in outsiders – her addictive Dublin Murder Squad novels and standalone The Wych Elm (told from the POV of a suspect) all hinge on significant characters being outcast – exiled, willingly or not, from all that is familiar, all that was close – and so able to cast a light of uncanny truth over the events of the books.

The Searcher goes one step further in this approach. Protagonist Cal Hooper has left his demons behind in Chicago (he hopes) to enjoy his retirement in the peace and quiet of a rural village in Ireland. He’s not just an outsider – he’s an incomer. Much of the tension hinges on how his actions affect his acceptance into the – occasionally Slaughtered Lamb-ish – community. Hooper, trying to shake off his cop feelings; his entire cop demeanour, for he’d rather no one knows that what he was, is anxious not to become embroiled in the various nefarious goings-on in town. But he does, of course, dragged in unwillingly by the tenacious pleas and demands for help from a local child, Trey – the true outsider in the story, whose family is snubbed and ignored by the village.

This book has all the French hallmarks – a twist of the uncanny; hidden and not-so-hidden depths and histories swirling around every exchange; and that incredible way of making the reader really really care about the outcome. Always, in French’s books, forgiveness, truth and justice twist and twine according to the context: the truth is not simple, not complete; closure is not guaranteed.

But The Searcher is not like French’s other works. It feels more wide open; more pensive; more thoughtful (though she’s certainly never lacked in that). Leon crossed with True Grit crossed with The Wickerman, set in Ireland. It is a Western – in setting, in tropes. In the way the landscape, with its beautiful threats of mountains and bogs, is a character in itself. And it considers justice, law and the distortion of working for the community v. the brotherhood of cops extensively.

The reason for four rather than five stars comes from it being, perhaps, a little too on the nose in its Western tropes. It all felt a little too familiar to really hold me – beautifully written, beautifully crafted – but somehow both too generically a thriller while not being thriller enough?  Perhaps it was that the village tropes – the characters, the set ups – felt a little like I’d come across this story, and so I wasn’t on edge to discover who had done what. I knew who to trust and who not, even if Cal struggled to decide, and I was disappointed to have guessed correctly from the go (perhaps anyone who grew up in a small village feels they’d be able to read the room in the same way).

Not that French ever really misdirects in her plots – there are few red herrings – but this felt so inevitable that I really read on for Trey’s story arc, rather than Cal’s. The Searcher is meditative, and in the same way Cal has chosen to move to a slower pace of life, so too must the reader, and explore with him the balances of power and the loss of it.

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