Cal is a retired Chicago cop who has moved to a secluded village in western Ireland in the wake of an ugly divorce. His neighbors’ smiles barely hide their deep distrust of outsiders, and Cal is okay with that. He just wants to be left alone to restore his crumbling cottage and nurse his wounded heart and his qualms about his former job. Life has other plans.
Through no fault of his own, he gets caught in a trap set by a 13-year-old neighbor. Because French, among her many, many other virtues, is very, very smart, there’s no easy way out. As far as I can tell, in fact, no way out at all. And so he’s blackmailed into looking for a missing brother, and in the process he’s forced to uncover the lies, desperation, and violence so shallowly buried under the idyllic surface of the town.
THE SEARCHER is quite unlike French’s other novels and, as one of her Irish characters might say, fair play to her for not repeating herself. It’s her first novel in third person, and while it’s not her first in present tense, the present tense feels very intrusive in this one. The viewpoint character being from the US affects not just the vocabulary of the book, but its attitude toward guns, privacy, drinking, and so much else. French was born in Vermont, and she mostly gets the voice right (although we don’t say “not best pleased” over here). The pace is slow, there’s a lot of description of nature, and Cal is the most easygoing and unflappable character in any of her books.
What doesn’t change from her earlier novels is French’s acute psychological insight and her ability to construct a scene of riveting complexity. Her first novel, IN THE WOODS, features one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve ever read, where the narrator has to listen to a confession that everyone around him believes to be invented, but he knows to be the agonizing truth. FAITHFUL PLACE describes patricidal rage with staggering accuracy and insight. BROKEN HARBOR melds setting and story so perfectly that one could not exist without the other.
If THE SEARCHER’s title reminds you of a John Ford film, that’s no accident. French has said in interviews that she immersed herself in western novels like LONESOME DOVE and TRUE GRIT while writing the book. There are certainly ways in which THE SEARCHER resembles a classic western–the outsider who takes on entrenched power in defense of a persecuted family, just like in SHANE–but it ends up in a far different, and far more complicated place.