Book Review: The Searcher

The Searcher
by Tana French
464 pages

After retiring from a decades-long career on the Chicago police force, Cal Hooper decides to buy a fixer-upper on a plot of land in rural western Ireland. He’s tired of solving other people’s problems, and wants to get the ‘detective itch’ out of his system. Moving to Ireland gets him about as far away from everything he knows as possible without having to learn an entirely new language, while reminding him of his country boy roots. It goes well for a while. The little town of Ardnakelty is full of the sorts of characters Cal expects of a small town– complete with baffling grudges that go back for decades– and his neighbor, Mart, is a charismatic man who’s willing to help Cal get his bearings, as long as Cal supplies him with his favorite cookies. But the smooth transition from big city to the tiny, windswept town at the edge of the mountains hits a snag with a local kid, Trey, appears on Cal’s doorstep asking for help in locating an older brother, Brendan, who disappeared a few months earlier. Everyone says Brendan ran off to Dublin or London, but Try isn’t so sure. Though Cal initially resists the mystery, the old detective itch returns, and soon he’s asking questions of the locals, who grow more suspicious with every question. Soon, Cal realizes that someone out there doesn’t want him poking into Brendan’s disappearance. He won’t let it go, though, and the deeper he digs into the tangled web of Ardnakelty’s alliances and feuds, the more he realizes that the people of Ardnakelty aren’t who he thought they were.

Tana French received instant acclaim with her debut novel, In The Woods, which was the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, but in her two most recent novels– The Witch Elm and now The Searcher— French has moved away from the series format. This has allowed her to tell more varied stories from different perspectives than those of police detectives, format that was slightly less successful in The Witch Elm. Whatever drawbacks her previous outing may have had, French returns to form in The Searcher, bringing her signature gorgeous prose and carefully observed character work to bear in a different part of Ireland– the western edge, as opposed to more cosmopolitan Dublin.

The village of Ardnakelty is nestled at the base of lush mountains, surrounded by peat bogs and sheep pastures, and occasionally drenched by a dozen kinds of rain or else half-swept away by cold winds the reader can almost feel slicing through clothes and going right to the bone. The people of Ardnakelty are just as carefully realized as the land and weather. French doesn’t fall prey to the notion that small town folk are somehow less complex than city dwellers. Their lives and psychologies are as complicated as anyone else’s, and because everyone knows everyone else’s business, a youthful indiscretion can mark a person for life. One can’t simply move to another neighborhood and start over when there’s only one neighborhood.

If The Searcher has a flaw, it could be in the pacing, which is languorous, unwinding the story in a measured and careful way that readers looking for a quick read may find maddening. But French’s books have never been a race to find out whodunnit. They are careful studies into the minds of people investigating some of the worst crimes people perpetrate against each other, and what that does to the investigators as they peel back the layers of humanity– and inhumanity– that drive people to kill.

With The Searcher, French brings us another masterfully written tale about seeking the truth, what that search can cost, and what it means if we don’t even try to find the answers. A rainy village in the west of Ireland may seem like a paradise, but look closer. It has its darkness, too, and buried secrets that some will kill to keep hidden.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Searcher

  1. Tana French is new to me. I like the idea of this sort of mystery being told away from the big cities, in a smaller locale but one with a potentially long history. Seems that might open up a lot of storytelling potential.

  2. Tana French is so good! The rest of her books pretty much take place in cities (except for parts of Broken Harbor, which are outside of Dublin). The small-town aspect– especially with how good French is at building an atmosphere– is unexpected and fantastic.

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