“He doesn’t like the feeling, or the fact that he recognises it and understands it perfectly; it’s as familiar to him as hunger or thirst. Cal never could stand to leave a case unresolved.”
If I’d read The Searcher without knowing the author’s identity, I’d never have guessed that it was a novel by Tana French.
Because the narrative in The Searcher is told in the third-person, it felt far less intimate and intricate than the Dublin Murder Squad series (which, with the exception of The Secret Place, have a first-person pov) so it took me awhile to warm up to French’s prose. While I understand that ‘sticking’ to the same writing style book after book must get tiring, I can’t say that I particularly liked French’s ‘new’ style (in fact, while reading I found myself longing for her ‘usual’ prose). And even if The Searcher was by no means incompetently written, the language French uses wasn’t quite as literary or complex as the one in her previous novels.
Onto the actual story: after becoming increasingly disillusioned with the police force Cal, our main character, retires from Chicago’s police force and decides to re-locate to the fictional Ardnakelty, a remote small village in the West of Ireland. Here he spends his time fixing up his decrepit new house and bantering with his neighbour.
The narrative moves at an incredibly slow pace…which would have been fine by me if pace had been sacrificed in favour of characterisation. But Cal isn’t an incredibly compelling or complex protagonist. What we get instead are long and detailed descriptions about Cal painting his desk or doing up something in his new house. While he goes on about his day he starts to feel as if someone is watching him.
After some more time passes he meets Trey, a kid from a poor and disreputable family. Trey’s brother is missing so he enlists Cal to find out what happened to him. Cal, who wants to keep his head down, is initially reluctant to get involved, however, as he spends more time with Cal (fixing up his furniture, hunting) he decides to help Trey.
French brings to life the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of a small village. In a community where everyone seems to know everybody’s business, Cal quickly realises how difficult it is to escape the shadow of your family. Although Trey is only thirteen, Ardnakelty residents believe that because he comes from a ‘rotten’ family he’s bad egg.
Cal makes slow progress in his ‘investigation’. He has little authority in the village, so he has to play up his ‘Yankee’ persona in order to get some answers. Still, the people he questions are reticent to talk and soon enough Cal realises that he has ruffled some of the locals feathers.
French vividly renders Cal’s environment, on the very first page we get this stunning description:
“The sky, dappled in subtle gradations of grey, goes on forever; so do the fields, coded in shades of green by their different uses, divided up by sprawling hedges, dry stone walls and the odd narrow back road.”
The Irish countryside is by turns idyllic and menacing, just as the people who inhabit the land. Much of the banter Cal has with his neighbour or with other men at the local pub carries a not-so-friendly edge. Seemingly harmless exchanges carry the possibility of danger. Yet, even if Cal is aware of this, and of the possibility of upsetting or antagonising the entire village, he’s unwilling to give up his search.
The mystery often took the backseat in favour of scenes detailing Cal’s daily routing (fixing up the house, fishing, going to the local store, phoning his daughter). There were also quite a lot of conversations about topics I didn’t particularly care for (look, I like dogs as much as the next person but my mind will start going blank if I have to read a few pages describing ‘pups’).
The dynamic between Cal and Trey was the most compelling aspect of this book. I did wish that some scenes of Trey interacting with his family could have been included as they would have given a fuller picture of his life.
Even if I wasn’t as interested in Mart or Lena, their words always rang true and they could provide some amusing moments. Cal, on the other hand, sometimes said things that didn’t entirely convince me. While he did question himself and his own behaviour, and I did appreciate that he struggled with the meaning of ‘doing the right thing’, his character was a bit of a blank at times. Although we are given his view on his job, on his feelings about police brutality, racial profiling, and corruption, as well as an impression of the kind of relationship that he has with his daughter and ex-wife, Cal’s main characteristic is that he is ‘American’. And sometimes what he said sounded a bit too American, even in those instances when he wasn’t playing up this role. His motivations for picking Ireland as his new home were also left unexplored. And what did his daughter think of this relocation? We simply know that she’s busy working but we don’t learn of her reaction upon discovering that her father had chooses to retire and move across the ocean.
The mystery storyline takes a rather predictable direction and I never felt any real sense of suspense. There were quite a few scenes that were just boring and added little to the overall story.
At the end of the day, The Searcher doesn’t offer a new spin on the Town with a Dark Secret™. The more I think about it the less I like this novel. It has a kind of Hot Fuzz sort of story (minus the laughs): we have a protagonist who ‘can’t switch off’ who goes to a small village and learns the meaning of friendship and finds out that there is a reason why locals don’t want him to investigate certain things.
An okay read but nothing like French’s usual.
My rating: 3 ½ stars of stars