“The morning has turned lavishly beautiful. The autumn sun gave the greens of the fields an impossible, mythic radiance and transformed the back roads into light-muddled paths where a goblin with a fiddle, or a pretty maiden with a basket, could be waiting around every game and-bramble bend. Cal is in no mood to appreciate any of it.”
Tana French is such an exquisite writer, with a gorgeous turn of phrase and a sensibility and imagination where the fae and the other and the gothic seem to be breathing heavily in the background and The Searcher is no exception.
In The Searcher – which is not one of her Dublin Murder Squad series – we focus on Cal, a Chicago cop retiring to rural Ireland after a difficult divorce. Cal is a fascinating character: he is capable of violence but bound by an iron self control, disillusioned and cynical yet also romantic, aching for his family which is on the other side of the Atlantic and grasping hard on the opportunity to fill that void.
The novel opens as a paean to Ireland and landscape and the countryside and abounds with sentences like this
Landscape is one of the few things he knows of where the reality doesn’t let you down. The West of Ireland looked beautiful on the internet; from right smack in the middle of it, it looks even better. The air is rich as fruitcake, like you should do more with it than just breathe it…
The mountains on the horizon look like someone took a pocketknife and sliced neat curves out of the star-thick sky, leaving empty blackness. Here and there, spread out, are the yellow rectangles of windows, tiny and valiant.
The people around him and in the village of Ardnakelty are more of a problem for Cal: his busybody of a neighbour Mart; the group of locals who drink in the local pub, Seán Óg’s; Noreen who runs the only local shop and is desperate to matchmake between Cal and Lena, her widowed sister; the impenetrable network of family, cousins, marriages, friendships and alliances within the little village community and farms; and of course the Reddy family living in the mountains, a single mum and her six kids, one of whom, Trey, starts to sneak around Cal’s ruin of a house.
Trey has learnt that Cal was a cop and Trey’s brother has disappeared, which drags Cal into a complex family dynamic and unearths secrets and dangers within the community into which he has found himself. Tensions are discovered, subtle undercurrents of threat and menace which resolve into real violence.
I’ll be cautious about giving too many details, for fear of spoiling the novel because the plot does carry its fair share of twists, but there was a sub plot: sheep on some of the farms were being attacked and slaughtered and butchered, one farm after another, with wild theories raised about aliens and animals
“Come here,” he says, shifting his bulk around on the bar stool to face Cal. “Listen to this. Night before last, something kilt one of Bobby’s sheep. Took out its throat, its tongue, its eyes and its arse; left the rest.”
“Sliced out,” Bobby says.
Senan ignores this. “What would you say done it, hah?”
“If I was a gambling man,” Cal says, “my money’d be on an animal.”
“What animal?” Bobby demands. “We’ve no coyotes or mountain lions here. A fox won’t touch a grown ewe. A rogue dog would’ve ripped her to bits.”
I loved this side to the novel! Beasts stalking the ancient landscape is so deliciously Tana French! It took me back to the first Dublin Murder Squad series novel, In The Woods, in which the woods were or may have been haunted by a goat-smelling presence, or perhaps the muscular darkness lurking in the attic of Broken Harbour. And it was wonderful seeing Cal seduced by the possibility of something other as an explanation for these mutilations in his neighbours’ fields. I am a sucker for those urban or rural folkloric tales of big cats and the beasts of Bodmin Moor, the Roy Dog… tales that could resolve in mundane explanations (escaped pets) or something more supernatural.
The novel is not, however, plot driven: the plot is present but, detached from any pressure of the institution of the police procedural, is pursued languidly and leisurely – and the renovations in Cal’s dilapidated house, his and Trey’s work on the damaged desk together, the rooks and rabbits and fishing all take up as much of the word count as the search for the truth behind Trey’s brother’s disappearance.
What is at the heart of this novel are the characters and their relationships: Cal’s pseudo-surrogate father figure relationship with Trey is wonderful and difficult; his friendship with Lena grows into something positive and supportive and unsentimental as the rocks beneath the landscape; his friendship with Mart. Ardnakelty itself, the village and its community, is so vividly realised that it becomes a character in its own right.
The denouement and resolution of the novel is also wonderfully French: unlike many crime fiction writers, French’s resolutions are rarely simple or comforting. Truth and right and justice are complex terms and far from synonymous is French’s novels – and the resolution of this one follows the same pattern. It is credibly lacking in neatness or simplicity: the resolution is complex, nuanced and difficult and I have loved that about most of her novels.
On a few occasions, the novel does strain credibility a touch: Cal’s ability to get people to discuss difficult and personal histories without the support and authority of a badge, and particularly as an outsider within a close-knit community, did rankle a little bit in places – it’s hard to see why these people did not resort to close lipped sullenness or a terse “Feck you” more often! But these were mere moments and outweighed by far by the luminous and beautiful prose as French slides from colloquial slang to lyrical description, from humour to horror, with ease.
This is the sort of quietly distutbing novel that remains with you for longer than you expect after reading it.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 400
Date: 5th November 2020