An American In Ardnakelty:
Tana French’s new novel, The Searcher, is not as complex as her last book,The Witch Elm, but it has more emotional heft, plus the kind of plot, characters and locations, that would make for a lovely film. (These two are standalone novels, not part of her much-loved Dublin Murder Squad series).
Cal Hooper is an American cop, who retires to a small village in Ireland, to get away from the noise and violence of Chicago, where he used to live and work. He is divorced and has a grown-up daughter whom he misses a lot.
He buys a decrepit old cottage, and spends his time renovating it, chatting with his nosy neighbour Mart, or drinking at the local pub, where he understands he is not quite welcome. The residents of Ardnakelty are not outright hostile to the stranger, but have their own way of gauging if and when an outsider may be admitted into the fold. Mart and Noreen, the woman who runs the provision store, do make attempts to match Cal with a pretty widow, Helena.
With his cop’s instincts, Cal senses that someone is watching his house, and soon enough unearths a skinny, shabby, taciturn kid, Trey, who has been skulking around. Without too many words being spoken, Cal recruits Trey to help with restoring an antique desk, feeding the obviously undernourished kid in return.
Trey turns out to have a hidden agenda—a missing older brother, Brandon. The cops do not care enough to look for a small time thug, and the family is too poor to do anything about it. But Trey is convinced Brandon did not simply run off, and won’t take no for an answer when Cal explains that he is retired and has no resources or back-up to mount a search in his adopted country. But Trey’s persistence and underhand methods– Cal finds the air let out of his car tires and his house egged— force him to start making inquiries. In a place where everyone knows everyone and nothing is a secret, he finds that his attempts at snooping do not go down well with the locals. He is given some subtle warnings by the villagers and later, attacked in his own yard.
The author paints a depressing picture of a village that has a lot of natural beauty (“the air is rich as fruitcake, like you should do more with it than just breathe it; bite off a big mouthful, maybe, or rub handfuls of it all over your face”), but no opportunities for the young. Under the bucolic peace of the village, greed and violence lurk.
The Searcher is an old-style Western (the writer herself called it that) set in rural Ireland—those cinematic tales of lone cowboys taking on a bunch of evildoers. Tana French builds up the tension slowly, and also the tenderness and trust between Cal and Trey—the kid is a wonderfully written character. Cal means well, but is out of his depth in a place where the others have long associations and connecting histories, which they do not want to reveal to someone who does not belong to their close-knit community.
The Searcher does have familiar tropes, the character of the white male saviour as hero is losing his shine; still it is a satisfying mix of suspense, romance, action, several twists and bursts of sharp wit. This one deserves its place on the bestseller lists.
By Tana French