The Searcher (2020) is a novel by Irish American author Tana French, who has made a name for herself penning literary fiction with the plot and pacing of a crime novel. Previous books, such as The Witch Elm (2018), have won acclaims such as The New York Times Notable Book of 2018 and the Best Book of 2018 by NPR, while her debut novel In the Woods (2007) won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards for best first novel.
According to Janet Maslin of The New York Times, French writes “full-bodied novels in which crimes happen to have been committed” (Maslin, Janet. “Tana French’s Irish Western Features a Retired Lawman and a Missing Boy.” The New York Times, 5 Oct. 2020). The Searcher differs from French’s previous novels in being “unusually contemplative and visual, as if she literally needed this breath of fresh air. It steps back to examine the policing powers she has traditionally taken for granted […] It’s also slower than some of her other books” (Maslin). The protagonist, Cal, is an American ex-cop who retires in the West of Ireland and spends ample time refurbishing his home before fate has other plans for him. The slower pace of the novel also stems from Cal’s careful reevaluation of right and wrong after a lifetime of following orders. Contemporary debates on the police force and their powers are interwoven into the protagonist’s inner monologue as well.
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French’s novel has a “western tinge” in being inspired by the American western trope of an outsider coming into a community and changing everything around them. French even compares the harsh, partially uncultivated landscape of the West of Ireland with that of the Western United States, stating in an interview that “they’re both harsh country […] which demand physical and mental toughness if you want to live there, and culturally and geographically they’re far from the centres of power. The power-brokers don’t really care, or even know much about them” (McManus, Darragh. “I Definitely Write Like an Actor, Everything Comes from Character.” The Irish Independent, 14 Nov. 2020). Thus, an area that is outside the interest of conventional lawmakers proves the perfect testing ground for a former cop who needs to reconsider his notions of right and wrong.
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Forty-eight-year-old Cal Hooper moves to the rural West of Ireland from Chicago to undertake early retirement and leave his past behind. Following his divorce, his estrangement from his daughter Alyssa and his disenchantment with his job as a police officer, Cal decides to seek out an existence of fishing, rabbit hunting and home refurbishment in the rural village of Ardnakelty. The close-knit community of locals treat him as a curiosity and attempt to include him by inviting him to the local pub or, in the case of the convenience store owner Noreen, attempting to set him up with her widowed sister Lena.
At first, when Cal realizes that he is being watched, he tries to ignore the matter. However, his spy turns out to be the determined 13-year-old Trey Reddy. Despite Cal’s wish to conceal the knowledge, Trey is aware that Cal was a former cop, and he wants him to help find his brother Brendan, who disappeared six months earlier. Cal hesitates to get involved with a new case, especially on unfamiliar turf, but he eventually acquiesces. He finds that the Reddy family, who are headed by an absentee father and a mother who is despised for being poor, are looked down upon and excluded by the locals. He also finds that his neighbors seem astonishingly unconcerned about missing 19-year-old Brendan. However, when Cal interviews Brendan’s friends and ex-girlfriend, he begins to sense that they know more than they tell him and were threatened to keep quiet. Similarly, after a drunken night at the pub, Cal senses that locals such as his friendly neighbor Mart Lavin are also hinting that he should mind his own business and leave the Brendan Reddy matter alone.
Cal does a bit more digging and thinks that Brendan’s disappearance is related to a Dublin drug ring and an attempt to smuggle drugs over the border to earn extra cash. He believes that Donie McGrath, a local thug who has been murdering local farmers’ sheep, is involved in a scheme to keep everyone quiet about what happened to Brendan. Mart offers Cal another warning about his interference, in addition to the surprising news that Trey Reddy is not a boy, as Cal suspected, but a girl. Cal is horrified by the thought that he has been entertaining a young, adolescent girl and forbids Trey from ever returning. He also bars her from visiting because he fears that if Trey continues to search for Brendan, she will become one of Donie’s and the Dublin drug ring’s victims.
However, when Trey returns to Cal’s door in a vulnerable state, saying that a mysterious third party forced her mother to beat her, Cal has no choice but to take her in. He enlists the help of Lena, who has medical experience. Cal and Lena grow closer as they look after Trey. As Cal goes to get supplies, he is greeted by a group who beat him to the ground with a hurley, a stick used in a traditional Irish sport. Trey, who is in the house, aims a rifle at them, shooting one of Cal’s aggressors in the arm. The group disperses. Cal, who believes that members of the Dublin crime ring visited him, gets the ringleader’s number from Donie.
A long conversation with Mart uncovers the truth about Brendan. Mart confesses that he and a group of local men were the ones who dispatched Brendan. They apprehended him prior to his meeting with the crime ring and a fight broke out between them, ending in Brendan’s death. The men buried Brendan in a bog, where they hoped the matter would rest and be forgotten. Cal accompanies Mart to the bog, where he finds Brendan’s body perfectly preserved.
After this incident, a fragile peace ensues. Brendan’s murderers maintain their secret, but say nothing to denigrate the friendship between Cal and Trey. Now that Trey knows what happened to her brother, she hopes to move on with her own life. Similarly, Cal intends to adopt a puppy from Lena and embark on a relationship with her.
By Tana French