The new standalone crime novel from Tana French, author of the Dublin Murders series (my review of the first here), is that rare thing – a really slowburn multilayered mystery that delves deep into looking at all kinds of relationships – be they friends and family, neighbours, professional, or best kept at arms’ length. The novel is centred in a rural village in a remote corner of Ireland, home to a pub and a couple of shops, and a scattering of houses and sheep farms. This is the place where retired detective Cal Hooper has escaped to, buying a fixer-upper cottage to renovate. He grew up in the countryside and is looking forward to the tranquility, scenic walks, fishing and hunting (once his rifle licence comes through). He needs to make a new life in early retirement after his marriage to Donna failed, and a return to the land of his forefathers called.
After having worked for twenty-five years in the Chicago police force Cal is wanting to put that behind him too, along with his ex. Cal has been doing his best to get to know the villagers and farmers, from Noreen in the store who wants to set him up with her sister Lena, to voluble but inquisitive neighbour Mart and his cronies in the pub. They have a keen interest in him too, most incomers don’t last.
But it isn’t long before he finds his old skills needed to help solve a mystery, when a local kid whose older brother has gone missing persuades him to investigate as no-one else in the village is interested in helping. Trey had been spying on Cal, sussing him out – Cal had sensed someone watching, and called out the thirteen-year-old, gradually making friends with the semi-feral teen before getting what the teen wanted from him. Trey is the fourth of six children, dad long gone, mum struggling on her own in poverty a couple of miles up the hill. Cal feels duty-bound to help, but soon, it becomes clear that Brendan, if he’s still alive, is running from someone – but who?
I already said this novel is a slow burner and while I did wonder when things were going to get going, the leisurely pace of the first half of the book gave time to get totally immersed in Cal’s new life, to appreciate the landscape, and most importantly to build the relationships at the heart of the story, especially that between Cal and Trey. The troubled young teen and old cop may be familiar tropes, but French’s main characters feel very real indeed. There’s a tenderness in Cal, as he thinks of his own daughter far away working in Seattle, wishing he could have been a better father for her as his relationship with Donna stagnated, but he takes baby steps with Trey building trust.
French’s writing is, as always, detailed and subtle, and as Cal starts to feel his way into getting to know Brendan through some sideways indirect questioning, the tension increases steadily. The atmosphere in the village becomes more and more foreboding, as Cal picks away at the secrets it hides. French keeps the suspense going as the action and pace ramp up, cleverly wrong-footing us on occasion, as the climax approaches.
Yes, this novel could have been edited into a tauter, more plot-driven conventional mystery, but that’s not what French ever does. Her style owes something to that of Donna Tartt, whose eye for detail describes everything she wants you to see. The time taken to build characters and atmosphere in the first half of the novel pays dividends in the second because we care about Cal and Trey. It was totally engrossing and I enjoyed it very much indeed. Although if I were to apply for an Irish passport, as I can claim citizenship, I don’t think village life of this sort would be for me!
Source: Review copy – Thank you! Tana French, The Searcher (Viking, Nov 2020) Hardback, 400 pages.