Tana French has made a name for herself with dark, brooding Irish mysteries, particularly those revolving around one shifting group of detectives (The Dublin Murder Squad). I’ve always loved her language and dedication to place, but her subtle touch in her newest mystery, The Searcher, has me enchanted in a whole new way.
All Cal Hooper wants to do is fix up his run-down Irish cottage, hunt a few rabbits, and distance himself as much as possible from his past as a Chicago cop. He thinks he can get away with it, too—sure, the little village is full of gossip and as the lone American in town he stands out like a sore thumb, but the people are charming and the landscape is breathtaking. He’s made good enough friends with his neighbor and there’s even talk that the local storekeeper wants to set him up with her sister, not that Cal’s healed from his divorce yet. If only he could stop feeling like he was being watched.
The mysterious watcher reveals themself to be a kid barely into teenage years, and after a little coaxing, the kid, Trey, asks Cal to help find their brother, Brendan, who vanished six months before. Trey is from a rough family written off by everyone from the local cops to the barstool flies, which means Brendan is, too. All of Brendan’s things are still where they should be and no one’s heard from him since, including Trey, which tells Cal either Brendan didn’t plan on leaving or his plan was to leave in such a way that no one would know he was gone. It’s a small town, but it’s also one where everyone knows everyone else’s business—but won’t tell their own directly. There are plenty of secrets all quietly known by the old-timers, and Cal has to figure out how to shake enough loose to find out what happened to Brendan before the same thing happens to him, too.
It’s a pretty straightforward premise, though the focus of the plot itself belies where most of French’s writing takes us. Despite this being a mystery, it’s no thriller; The Searcher is far more literary than that, which I mean without any disrespect to literary novels or thrillers. French’s previous novels have also had contemplative moments and lovely writing, but The Searcher veers farther in that direction than previous books of hers that I’ve read (and I’ve read almost all of them). Rather than ending chapters with a cliffhanger, French more likely than not wraps them up with an observation on the landscape, on the house, or on a conversation that just ended. Shots are fired, but no one gets a gun pointed to their heads because they dug too deep. There are stakes, and those stakes rise, but French doesn’t need to shed much blood to tighten the screw.
But blood does get shed, and there are hard truths for Cal and Trey to each accept. The realism of those choices and the ripples spreading outward from them is what’s more haunting than a missing brother or the persistent Irish rains. I personally loved this book and how Cal doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, no traumatic past he’s trying to escape. I loved the realism French brings, including the fact that there are few easy villains and a lot of people in need of a little understanding. Although I’m usually someone eager to tear through a book when it suits me, I didn’t blow through The Searcher; rather, I felt like I was stepping into another world every time I opened it up, and enjoyed walking slowly through the mist-soaked grass when I got there. And because so little of what I liked depended on the reveal or the action, I feel this is a rare mystery I can read again and come away just as satisfied with the outcome.
I know many of the things I loved will be turn-offs for others, which is valid. If you’re looking for a rapid-fire thriller with cliffhangers on every other chapter and a steaming-hot romance subplot, I can safely tell you The Searcher is probably the best choice right now. If you need something to help you sleep…still probably not the best choice, but you’re getting closer. This is a mystery that will keep your mind flitting back to its plot and setting, but won’t make you read another chapter and another until you’ve read the night away—and that’s a good thing. There’s a part where Cal is eating dinner with his neighbor who has gotten, uh, creative with the spices in his spaghetti bolognaise. It was all right, Cal thinks, as long as you take it for what it is. Likewise, The Searcher is fantastic, as long as you take it for what it is.