The Searcher: A Novel
“a compelling and rewarding journey.”
It’s impossible not to be reminded of John Ford’s classic western from the 1950s—The Searchers—when one reads Tana French’s new novel, her eighth. In many ways, French’s The Searcher echoes Ford’s narrative of a moral man faced with an immoral dilemma. Both film and novel are tales of rescue and reconciliation. Both show us men struggling to comprehend a society they don’t fully understand. In both stories we even have a hero carrying a Henry lever action rifle. And in each story, compassion trumps guns.
French’s novel is set in a village in Western Ireland—Ardnakelty—where the protagonist, Cal Hooper, has escaped from the aftereffects of a painful divorce and retired from his soul-crunching job as a Chicago police detective. He comes to Ireland to get away from the street criminals, to bask in the peace and serenity, to appreciate the beauty of the landscape and the simplicity of the country folk. What he finds is what French often shows her readers in her other books: that Ireland has a tranquil surface but there’s a violence, oppression, and cruelty underneath. French’s Ireland has less in common with John Ford’s The Quiet Man than it does with the moral knottiness of John Huston's rendition of Joyce’s “The Dead.”
Most readers know French for her skillful mysteries, six of them in the Dublin Murder Squad series. The Searcher, like her 2018 The Witch Elm, steps away from the police procedural genre. French is in a class of her own, though, even with her Dublin Murder Squad series. She writes literary novels, brimming with psychological nuance and cultural undertone. Her books typically offer more subtle details about the idiosyncrasies of Irish life than they do about solving murders, and that’s what makes her mystery novels sui generis.
The Searcher opens with Cal renovating an old farmhouse and learning to love everything about the Irish countryside. He even gets used to the rain—“After decades of classifying weather in broad categories of nuisance value—wet, frozen, sweltering, OK—Cal enjoys noticing the subtle gradations here. He reckons at this point he could draw distinctions between five or six different types of rain.” The novel offers a guided tour of the Irish landscape—the varieties of wetness, the bogs, the gorse, the stone walls. Along the way, French maps out a plot that, although it may not offer too many surprises, provides a few twists and a satisfying and logical denouement.
Cal gets roped into helping his 13-year-old neighbor Trey find his missing 19-year-old brother Brendan, and that altruistic act leads Cal toward the possibility of redeeming himself with his grown daughter back in the States. A tough-edged and independent neighbor woman, Lena, offers Cal help and, ultimately, another form of salvation. French loves doubles and doppelgangers, and The Searcher has its share. Cal leaves one family in the United States and finds its mirror image in Ireland. He leaves deep-rooted crime of Chicago behind only to find its twin in the Irish countryside.
In many respects, The Searcher is less complicated than French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels, but because it is straightforward in its affectionate descriptions of the Irish countryside and unblinking in its depiction of the Irish character, it may be one of her most satisfying books to date. It’s hard not to like the honorable Cal Hooper or to sympathize with the unconventional Trey. And, even if you can guess from the outset where this book is heading, it’s always a compelling and rewarding journey.