The Hunter: A Novel

Image of The Hunter: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Reviewed by: 

“French, an unhurried and confident author, has always been willing to let her stories ease forward. The methodical unfurling of events in The Hunter showcases this talent.”

Tana French's fans—a not inconsiderable throng—are passionately familiar with the arc of her career. 2007’s In The Woods initiated six novels in which French, with CSI-ish precision and oblique psychological observation, focused serially on members of the Dublin Murder Squad detective team. Next came The Witch Elm, a bendy 2018 standalone that left some readers hoping French had only temporarily abandoned the Dublin bunch while others applauded her apparent self-liberating pivot. The Searcher, featuring retired Chicago cop Cal Hooper—recently relocated to rural Ireland and immediately ensnared in a missing-person drama—followed in 2020, confirming French’s creative retracking. And now comes a sequel, The Hunter, where we find Cal once again confronting both provincial anxieties and a series of misdeeds, some of which threaten to turn lethal.

At the beginning of The Hunter, we learn Cal—two-plus years into his life in the (fictional) Irish town of Ardnakelty—has struck up a satisfying romantic relationship with a youngish local widow and steadily made livable the dilapidated cottage he bought as part of a post-divorce reset. He’s also earned a healthy measure of respect from the locals by grasping what sorts of transgressions to overlook. “The main talent Cal has discovered in himself, since coming to Ardnakelty, is a broad and restful capacity for letting things be.” This proves occasionally taxing for a former cop, particularly one indisposed to retreat from verbal or physical challenge. As successful as he’s been at fitting in, though, Cal recognizes he will never earn full acceptance in his new home, especially when trouble arises. “No matter which set of wagons is circling, [Cal is] outside, in the darkness with the pacing predators.”

Perhaps his greatest consolation is the relationship he has forged with Trey Reddy, a 15-year-old girl from a troubled Ardnakelty family. Whereas freshly arrived Cal grudgingly helped Trey make sense of a domestic tragedy in The Searcher, the new novel finds the two characters established in a friendship that looks something close to a father-daughter arrangement. Cal, pushing 50, provides refuge and security for Trey; Trey offers Cal a rudimentary second chance at the family his former wife claimed he’d neglected. Their bond is the hub of the novel.

Disruption arrives in the person of Trey’s actual father, Johnny Reddy, a one-time Ardnakelty dandy who returns home (“the one place where he can’t announce himself as anything other than what he is”) to the wife and kids he ditched a few years earlier. He begins pumping a get-rich scheme—one well positioned to go off the rails—to his neighbors, several of whom attempt to discover if Johnny might be scamming them.

Johnny’s return immediately jeopardizes the stability Trey has fashioned. She initially gravitates even more to Cal before lurching back toward her family—and, seemingly, becomes ensnared in her father’s schemes—out of the confusion of allegiance and anger she feels toward Ardnakelty generally. Cal, too, is pulled into Johnny’s orbit, partly to keep an eye on Johnny but primarily to protect Trey, though he understands how delicately he must tread. “He doesn’t know how to stop [Trey] heading down the path she’s created, so he has no choice but to follow her, in case she should need him, somewhere up ahead.”

Rounds of intrigue and speculation ensue as Ardnakelty, unsettled by Johnny’s return, succumbs to “the endless rolling game of who-knows-that-I-know-that-she-knows-that-he-knows.” Imminent menace grows ever-more imminent; betrayals proliferate and expand and circle. In nearly all of French’s previous books, a body—usually dead, but sometimes just missing—appears near the outset of the story. It’s well past halfway into The Hunter before things turn as ominous as readers of the Dublin books might expect, at which point Cal becomes immersed in events in ways he couldn’t have foreseen, though the morally ambiguous terrain before him rarely clears.

French, an unhurried and confident author, has always been willing to let her stories ease forward. The methodical unfurling of events in The Hunter showcases this talent. She also often advances huge swathes of plot across lengthy, exploratory conversations where we find characters not only marking territory but also attempting to manipulate and uncover: What does the other person want, and What does the other person know? This bantering and parrying crackles in The Hunter as we eavesdrop on conversation after conversation in a way that illuminates the intentions of the speakers but also reveals something larger about how persuasion works in this corner of Ireland. Points are made slantwise; a good bit of teasing can do more than an outright demand.

It’s fascinating to watch Cal navigate these cultural niceties as his various filters—ex-cop, cautious expatriate, clueless Yank, semi-parent to Trey—cloud his vision. This examination of conflicted, confronted characters propels The Hunter, more so than the sorting through of any crimes. A reader holding expectations of a “typical” or longed-for Tana French novel may be disappointed by her latest. To her credit, French continues to confute expectations. As one 40-ish character considers, while reflecting on her own advancing years, “The risks [I] take are now middle-aged risks, carefully gauged to gain the best results with the least damage.” The Hunter feels like something more than a carefully gauged risk, one taken by a very assured storyteller.