If the homage wasn’t clear from the title, Tana French makes sure throughout The Searcher, her seventh novel and second stand-alone, that there’s no doubt which genre we’re in. ‘We’ll bring you for a pint, welcome you to the Wild West,’ a cheery local Garda tells her hero, Cal Hooper. ‘They used this rifle in the Wild West,’ Cal explains to someone later, when he gets his Henry shotgun. Cal is a former Chicago cop, recently retired and divorced, and the lawless west here is the west of Ireland, where he has bought a beat-up old farm in search of ‘a small place. A small town in a small country. It seemed like that would be easier to make sense of. Guess I might’ve had that wrong.’
He does, of course; a local kid, Trey, whose brother Brendan has been missing for six months, drafts Cal into helping to solve the mystery. The community regards Trey’s family as ‘wasters’. As Cal digs deeper, it appears that there is not merely a lack of interest in uncovering the truth about Brendan’s disappearance but an active closing of ranks against anyone who tries.
French’s novels frequently consider questions of identity, and what happens to characters when their sense of self is tested to breaking point. The Searcher is her first book not to be set in Dublin, and though she relishes the spare beauty of the landscape, her interest is in the relationship between the land and the people who spend their lives working it. Rural Ireland is still a place young men want to escape from: ‘The rest are hanging themselves, or they’re getting drunk and driving into ditches, or they’re overdosing on the aul’ heroin, or they’re packing their bags,’ Cal’s neighbour Mart tells him.
If French’s popular ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ novels unfold like a long-form television series with multiple subplots and red herrings, The Searcher is appropriately cinematic, with the neat economy and momentum of a classic feature film. Like John Ford’s near namesake, it asks questions about moral codes, and the price to be paid for enacting justice outside the law.
There’s a residual snobbery, particularly when it comes to literary awards, that still sees crime fiction and literary novels as mutually exclusive. French has bridged that false divide from the beginning of her career, and The Searcher might just be the book that sees her properly recognised as one of our finest contemporary novelists, of any genre.