I loved Tana French’s last book, The Wych Elm – a twisty, psychological mystery with loads of secrets, a troubled, unreliable main character and a beguilingly chatty narrative voice. So naturally, I was keen to see what she would come up with next. I expected something similar with The Searcher, but really this is quite a different sort of novel altogether.
For while we back in Ireland, this is rural Ireland, not an Irish city, and we have a very different way of doing things, a slower pace that suits the story as well. And our narrator, Cal Hooper, is a retired cop from Chicago, so the narrative voice is quite different too. He’s not a high flying ex-detective either, more a veteran of the beat, well aware of the sorts of crimes committed by the young and the desperate. Which comes in handy when he meets thirteen-year-old Trey.
Cal is two-years single, and for some reason thinks what he wants is a small holding in the middle of nowhere, the local village boasting a shop and a pub and not much else. His house needs everything done to it, and he is slowly putting in the hours with the paint and sandpaper when his cop’s sixth-sense tells him someone is watching him. So what does he do? He puts soil under his windows so he can check for footprints. Eventually he meets the ‘spy’ – a scrawny teenager with a problem, if only Cal can get the truth out of him.
Eventually Trey spills the beans – his older brother is missing. Trey comes from a family shunned by the villagers because of a bad-news father, now in Dublin, and a bunch of kids known for truancy and minor misdemeanours, a mother that’s not really coping. Nobody gives them a hand, which says something about the locals. Cal tells Trey how the police go about investigating missing persons and reluctantly puts together a plan. This includes talking to witnesses, the friends and associates that might know something to create a picture of what Brendan was up to before he disappeared.
The Searcher is a slow-burner that may lose the less-persistent reader. We have to meet the locals: Mart the chatty neighbour who gives Cal stick about women and invites him to the pub; Noreen, shopkeeper and town gossip; Lena, the potential love-interest. There’s Donie MacGrath, the town low-life who thinks he’s way smarter than he is and Mart’s odd-ball friends. Random sheep are savaged and down at the pub there is talk of wild cats and UFOs. It’s hard for Cal to get anybody’s story straight, there is just so much blarney.
But the pace picks up and pretty soon Cal finds there are secrets someone is determined to keep hidden to the point that things take a more violent turn. This does a lot to add suspense, but so does the atmosphere which is created out of the setting with its wild and lonely scenery, the natural distrust of the villagers for any disruption to their way of life. The author also creates a picture of a place with no future, its youth leaving in droves, or finding other outlets for their desperation.
Tana French does a brilliant job to bring this all together in a dramatic and sensitive way, making this a very intelligent sort of crime novel. Cal is a great character, being such a fish out of water and surprisingly trusting for an ex-Chicago cop. He has plenty to learn about people and his place in village life. The story builds to an ending that keeps you with bated breath, and a resolution that for me was deeply satisfying. And while The Searcher is quite a different reading experience from The Wych Elm, the two are both crafted, character-driven novels exploring the dark side of human nature. This one’s easily a four out of five star read from me.