BOOK REVIEWS

The Searcher by Tana French

“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

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THE MOVING FINGER (MISS MARPLE): BOOK REVIEW


The Moving Finger
by Agatha Christie

★★★★✰ 4.5 of 5 stars

It seems odd, now, to remember that Joanna and I were more amused by the letter than anything else. We hadn’t, then, the faintest inkling of what was to come – the trail of blood and violence and suspicion and fear.

The Moving Finger reveals a more mature side of Christie’s writing. While the narrative showcases her well-known traits, her wit and her amusing characters, underlining this story is a serious tone not often encountered in Christie’s mystery.

“There’s too much tendency to attribute to God the evils that man does of his own free will. I might concede you the Devil. God doesn’t really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We’re so very busy punishing ourselves.”

On a superficial level this is due the terms some of her characters use, but if I were to try and pin point the reason why The Moving Finger seems different from Christie’s usual, is the letters that set in motion the narrative. These vicious and insidious letters that bring about anger, shame and suspicion. These childish yet insidious letters make the mystery of this novel more likely, more real. Rich American millionaires and diamonds seem to belong in far off realities. These letters instead seem all too likely. They also reminded of a short story by Shirley Jackson (which was published in 1965), called The Possibility of Evil.
The narrator was a bit arrogant but I loved reading the scenes between him and his sister. Christie has mastered writing the ‘bickering’ siblings.
Overall, this was incredibly entertaining. The mystery wasn’t convoluted and I, for one, enjoyed reading about the various characters.

“Mrs. Dane Calthrop is a very remarkable woman, you know. She’s nearly always right.”
“It makes her rather alarming,” I said.
“Sincerity has that effect,” said Miss Marple.

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The More They Disappear by Jesse Donaldson

Perhaps I was expecting The More They Disappear to be more of a mystery. We know from the very start that Mary Jane is the one who shoots sheriff Lew Mattock. Mary Jane is a young drug-addict. She loathes both herself and her parents. Her boyfriend is the only one person she cares for, and together they believe they can be like Bonny and Clyde. Mark, the wannabe Clyde, is a college student who likes to buy and sell Oxy.
The deputy, Harlan Dupree, is forced to step up, taking the role of sheriff in a town that is torn by addiction and corruption. Harlan is viewed as a piss-poor replacement, yet, he does try to solve Lew’s murder. His investigation will reveal that Lew was incredibly corrupt and not quite the good man some believe he was. Except that most people, everybody but Lew’s son, knew just what sort of bully Lew could be. Harlan’s methods are rather inadequate. His efforts were shadowed by his constant mopey thoughts. Most of the characters, in fact, shared the same sense of self-pity. They all have horrible parents, they are all made fun of, they all have ‘inner’ potential…While I appreciated that no one was likeable, I found that by having 0 sympathetic characters I wasn’t that involved in the outcome of the story. Harlan and Lew’s son (what was his name? What was the point in him?) were so similarly bland that I confused one for the other. Mary Jane and Mark were the stereotypical angsty kids. The many sets of ‘couples’ and parents seemed all alike: the man is an asshole, the woman is a depressed chain-smoker.
The writing too was off-putting. Needless sex-scenes and lots of ‘nipple’ being described.
The More They Disappear offers depressing themes in a depressing manner. What could have been a raw and genuine portrayal of poverty and drug addiction turns into a ‘race’ for who is the most ‘misunderstood and unappreciated’ character. Pity parties are off-putting.

My rating: 2 stars

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The Dry by Jane Harper

Harper delivers an absorbing yet somewhat ‘run-of-the-mill’ thriller. The story is one that has been done time and again: our main character returns to the small town where they are from (having left after certain traumatic events) and is forced to confront his past ghosts as well as his new ones.
Now, despite these stereotypical elements, Harper reworks this stock plot into one gripping tale. The very first scene is thrilling: Aaron is at the funeral of his old best friend, Luke, who committed suicide after mercilessly killing his son and wife. This opening chapter brims with a tense unease: Aaron and his father where forced to leave their hometown Kiewarra years earlier, and people have not forgotten him. Aaron is all too aware of how his small town works: gossip, suspicions, petty jealousies. Yet, before he can leave, he finds himself helping the local police: was his friend capable of murder? Had he done it before?
The setting is one of the strongest aspects of the novel. Kiewarra is facing the worst drought in centuries, and locals are desperate. Harper captures this feeling of dread perfectly: farmers and shopkeepers alike are restless. The violent act that Aaron’s friend is accused off does not help the community: now more than ever, they are itching for a fight, or someone to blame. And the heat spurs their hatred and fear. Against this sizzling backdrop, Aaron confronts this latest act of violence as well as seeking answers for what happened all those years ago.
While I found this novel to be engrossing, I wasn’t very shocked by the storyline. I was hoping it would turn into much more of complex mystery, but I predicted every single twist and turn of Aaron’s investigation. The old ‘mystery’, the one surrounding his childhood sweetheart, was rather pointless. It just stole the limelight from current events. And those flashbacks were just so…clumsy. They interrupted the flow of the story. By showing obvious events Harper diminishes the thrill of her own story. Also, they read more awkwardly then the rest of the novel.
So, while this novel is predictable, and I did find Harper’s structure – as in the inclusion of flashbacks – to spoil the overall suspense, the vivid setting that accompanies Aaron’s investigation keeps the momentum of the story going. A promising beginning that needs some tweaking.

My rating: 3 stars

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Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

“This is how sudden things happened that haunted forever.”

Equal parts poetic and stark, Winter’s Bone is a short and compelling read. It follows sixteen-year old Ree Dolly who, after her father skips his bail, risks losing her home.

“Fading light buttered the ridges until shadows licked them clean and they were lost to nightfall.”

Ree’s life is far from easy: not only does she live in an incredibly bleak and desolated area but she also has to take care of her two younger brothers and her heavily medicated mother. It is made soon apparent that above all else, Ree is a survivor. Still, things go from bad to worse, when she starts looking for her father in her family network.
Woodrell does not shy away from describing the harrowing conditions and treatment Ree receives. Despite this, it is not all gloom and doom. He also offers brief glimpses of hope, such as the touching friendship between Ree and her best friend, or Ree’s interactions Uncle Teardrop.
Woodrell’s realistic portrayal of such a harsh community paints frightfully convincing scenes and interaction; his characters offer many shades of gray: they are all – regardless of their roles – equally believable in that they are far more than ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Ree, for obvious reasons, was the character who shines the most: she was both tough and surprisingly witty. I really did ‘feel‘ for her, especially given the situation she is.

“She would never cry where her tears might be seen and counted against her.”

The writing itself is something perfectly fits the story and its setting: Woodrell’s prose offers multitude of beautiful metaphors and similitudes. He does not tell us how Ree feels, he shows us.
I could best describe this as being a lyrical portrayal of an especially brutal place.

“The heart’s in it then, spinning dreams, and torment is on the way. The heart makes dreams seem like ideas.”

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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