‘The Searcher’, by Tana French book review

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“The Searcher”, by Tana French, is a slow combustion of a suspenseful story. As in that apocryphal myth of the frog in boiling water, the novel invites us to lie down and bask in the radiant imagery and language of the French – in particular, its descriptions of the raw beauty of western Ireland where the story takes place. Then the heat rises, higher and higher. By the end of the novel, anywhere – even the darkest, meanest streets of hard-boiled detective fiction – seems preferable to the grim, silent vigilance of the lush Irish countryside.

As French has acknowledged in interviews, the title of his latest stand-alone crime novel is a nod to John Ford’s masterpiece, “The Searchers.” Like Ford’s 1956 film, French’s novel is essentially a Western. (Perhaps the “West of Ireland” setting is even a sly nod to the novel’s generic origins.) A lonely man, a stranger, is drawn into an obsessive quest to find a missing youth. In Ford’s film, Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, searches for his niece who has been abducted from her family’s property by a Comanche raid.

French’s “old soldier” is called Cal Hooper. He is divorced, half-separated from his adult daughter, and recently retired from the Chicago Police Department. With no ties to bind him, Cal fulfilled his dream and bought a crumbling Irish cottage advertised on the internet. It’s so far removed that he can blast his favorite Johnny Cash tunes while smearing and painting, and only the sheep could complain. If the state of the cottage was somewhat misleading, other aspects of Cal’s new surroundings delight him. “The air is rich as fruitcake, as if you had to do more with it than just breathe it in; bite off a big bite, maybe, or rub handfuls of it on your face.

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But, as the autumn mists draw closer, Cal realizes he’s not as alone as he thought. The back of his neck – “trained for twenty-five years in the Chicago PD” – records a watcher, someone who crawled around the cabin and disturbed the nesting towers. When Cal corners the voyeur, he turns out to be a wayward teenager named Trey Reddy, who lives on a nearby mountain with his single mother and siblings. Soon, Trey is regularly coming to help Cal and learn carpentry. One thing Trey doesn’t need to learn is that Cal is an ex-cop. (Everyone in the nearest village figured out via Celtic telepathy that the American-who-bought-the-cottage was an ex-cop.) Eventually, Trey confesses the real reason he’s hanging around: he wants for Cal to find out what happened. to her beloved 19-year-old brother, Brendan, who disappeared from the family cabin months ago. The local police have been useless, prejudiced, as they are, against the entire Reddy family like a pack of lazy troublemakers. So it’s that Cal, despite his reluctance, finds himself drawn into the affair – as we readers know he will – because that’s what makes these silent men who preside over westerns and novels. police officers the imperfect heroes that they are. In the process of finding Brendan, Cal uncovers a host of secrets and sins smoldering beneath this scenic patch of the Auld Sod.

To reveal even such a part of the plot of “The Searcher” is a petty crime, for the great power of this suspenseful story comes from its slow, measured pace and the heightened evil of its atmosphere. One of the novel’s most unsettling moments is an extended scene in which Cal visits the local pub called Seán Óg’s – basically, another isolated cottage in a field – and the men gathered there urge blow after blow of “poteen “Made locally. on him. As a pewter whistle sounds in the background and the men joke around and Cal gets drunk, part of his brain registers that he’s been subtly “warned” of the disappearance investigation. of Brendan. And it’s not just the human residents of the area who know Cal’s movements all too well. The very landscape seems to be in collusion with all the malevolent forces that hunted Brendan. Here’s Cal walking down an alley and ruining his impulsive lifestyle choices:

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“The morning has become sumptuously beautiful. The autumn sun gives the greens of the fields an impossible, mythical glow and transforms the back roads into light, tangled paths where a pixie with a riddle, or a pretty damsel with a basket, might wait at every bend of gorse and brambles. . Cal is in no mood to enjoy anything. He feels that this specific beauty is at the heart of the illusion that has lulled him into stupidity, turned him into a peasant gawking at that handful of gold coins until they melted into dead leaves before his eyes.

French writing, as this passage illustrates, is strange and nuanced. Indeed, while his Dublin Murder Squad series and his other standalone mystery, “The Witch Elm,” were uniformly excellent, this hushed thriller about thwarted dreams of escape is perhaps his best yet. Like the John Ford film it pays homage to, “The Searcher” is its own masterpiece.

Maureen Corriganwho is a book reviewer for the NPR Fresh Air program, teaches literature at Georgetown University.

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