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Review: Thriller mastermind Tana French tries on a neo-western

Tana French wrote "The Searcher."
(Jessica Ryan)

On the Shelf

The Searcher

By Tana French
Viking: 464 pages, $27

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It’s a bold move to publish a novel with an American cop hero in October 2020, but if anyone can get away with it, it might be Irish crime phenom Tana French. “The Searcher is her eighth novel, and she’s banked a lot of goodwill since her 2007 debut “In the Woods,” with work that is as consistently thoughtful and thought-provoking as it is entertaining. French earned her reputation with the Dublin Murder Squad series, six brilliant police procedurals far removed from the muddy swamp of American policing. This standalone — her second, after 2018’s “The Witch Elm” — is not a procedural. It’s the story of a disillusioned man in search of a moral anchor after 25 years in the Chicago PD.

French has called “The Searcher” her take on a western, and Calvin Hooper is the stranger who comes to town: a divorced, middle-aged, retired cop looking for the quiet life in a small Irish village, the fictional Ardnakelty. “The West of Ireland looked beautiful on the internet; from right smack in the middle of it, it looks even better. The air is rich as fruitcake, like you should do more with it than just breathe it; bite off a big mouthful, maybe, or rub handfuls of it over your face.” He’s bought a fixer-upper and applied for a firearm license, hoping to spend his time restoring the house and hunting rabbits for dinner. He’s not a hermit — he’s neighborly, he’ll have a pint with the men in the pub — but he didn’t move across the ocean to become the protagonist of a Tana French novel.

Unfortunately for Cal, the people of Ardnakelty have their own intentions, and he has to decipher them from the vulnerable, uncertain position of an outsider who doesn’t know the rules. “Cal is in the dark on what he might set in motion” just by sitting on the wrong barstool or talking to the wrong person. He’s “started to get an inkling of how tangled up things get around here, and how carefully you have to watch where you put your feet.” For their part, the townspeople are quick to sniff out whatever information they need about the stranger in their midst.

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A cover for "The Searcher" by Tana French
(Viking)

Cal hoped to keep his old profession private — having left due to his unease over the practice and politics of American policing — but word gets out that he was a cop. This earns him the attention of 13-year-old Trey, a laconic, scrappy child whose older brother Brendan has been missing for the last six months. Trey skulks around Cal, alternately spying on him and helping him with the house, then hounds him into searching for the boy.

Young people tend to leave Ardnakelty, a farming town where only old men seem to stick around, and the local authorities find nothing suspicious about Brendan’s disappearance. But as soon as Cal starts asking questions, the villagers respond with an almost monolithic resistance. Cal doesn’t know if it’s about Brendan or just stubbornness on principle, but he can’t have a single conversation without feeling pushback. In one tense, marvelous scene, he spends a night getting drunk with a large group of regulars at the pub and leaves with the understanding that all of Ardnakelty has warned him off his quest.

“Snow,” by John Banville, uses the tools of mystery perfected by his alter ego, Benjamin Black, only to overturn them in fascinating ways.

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In a foreign place, without the tools or authority of law enforcement, Cal is constantly unsure of his footing. Like many a lone wolf detective, he has a personal code. “If you don’t have your code,” he tells Trey, “you’ve got nothing to hold you down. You just drift any way things blow you.” Cal is a decent man, steady and sympathetic, but he has a hard time hewing to this amorphous code and using it to guide his actions: “This unsettles him right down to the bottom of his guts. It implies that somewhere along the way he got out of practice doing the right thing, to the point where he doesn’t even know it when he sees it. That feeling is one of the things that drove Cal out of his job.”

“The Searcher” is French’s first novel with a non-Irish protagonist, and it’s also her first written in the third person — all seven of her other books feature memorable first-person narrators. This small amount of distance fits the story, but it does make “The Searcher” feel like the odd man out — the voice a little less vibrant, the narrative less clearly driven by the flaws and foibles of the hero. Cal happens to be quite reliable, and while he spends much of the novel feeling disturbed and unsettled, the story progresses, if not predictably then on solid, familiar ground.

Even so, French finds interesting angles and dynamics, and her cast is, as always, wonderfully drawn. “The Searcher” contains a meaningful contemplation of masculinity and gender roles in a small town, with the kind of strong female characters that male authors are always writing so poorly.

Like many a genre hero before him, Cal tries to do good in a place where the right thing is not always obvious, where every choice has the potential to cause harm. His search is one many of us might relate to. What’s an American to do when he no longer believes in the infallibility of law?

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In a quarantine diary, “Your House Will Pay” author Steph Cha reads Ivy Pochoda , watches “Iron Man 2" and “Fleabag,” and works a “Starry Night” puzzle.

Steph Cha’s most recent novel is “Your House Will Pay” (Ecco).


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