Books

History Catches Up With Tana French

The great crime novelist’s new book is surprisingly unreflective about the police.

Repeating pattern of the cover of The Searcher: A Novel.
Photo illustration by Slate

In the seven, genre-stretching crime novels Tana French wrote before her eighth and most recent, The Searcher, she perfected an approach that rarely fails to fascinate. Each mystery has a different detective chasing its solution (or, in the case of 2018’s The Witch Elm, a suspect trying to grasp his own role in the crime), and the investigation becomes an appraisal of the detective himself. He is cracked open by the case and finds within not the person he believed himself to be but a stranger. So when The Searcher sets up a scenario that feels like a familiar genre premise—police detective retires to a small town to live a quiet life, only to be dragged back into the crime-solving game when a vulnerable local begs for his help—any practiced reader of French’s novels will be expecting this to go somewhere unexpected.

To say that the mystery genre has a thing for middle-age white male detectives would be an understatement. It often seems to worship them. Louise Penny’s immensely popular Three Pines series, featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, a police detective in Quebec who investigates murders in and around a provincial village, is a prime example. Gamache—noble, brilliant, dogged, ethical, brave, etc.—is hopelessly idealized, a sort of modern-day Galahad under a light dusting of contemporary world-weariness, and profoundly uninteresting. But Penny is far from alone in relying on this type of hero. The genre is full of similar figures, from Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch to Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. These men often have wrecked marriages and strained relationships with their children, but that only lends them a broody glamour, and on the job, they are almost always depicted as lone crusaders for truth and justice, furiously battling the very system that claims to provide both.

French’s Cal Hooper, formerly of the Chicago police department, owes a bit to Kate Atkinson’s private investigator, Jackson Brodie, as well. Like Brodie, he both respects and is bemused by women, especially the wife who has left him for reasons he doesn’t really understand. He likes to listen to mournful singers from the less regressive end of the country-music spectrum—Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris—as he fixes up the ramshackle cottage he bought in the tiny West Irish village of Ardnakelty. He’s developed bantering friendships with some of the locals at the pub, and the woman who runs the general store in town wants to fix him up with her sister. Yet sometimes Cal feels like he’s being watched, and then he meets Trey, a 12-year-old from a family that everyone in Ardnakelty dismisses as trash. Trey’s adored older brother, Brendan, has gone missing, and the kid persuades Cal to find out what happened to him.

French has described this novel as her variation on a Western. Cal is a kind of settler; Ardnakelty, while not quite a frontier town, is largely self-policing, overseen by a complacent and none-too-bright garda in the next town. And in his little homestead, Cal finds his perception dominated by the landscape, “one of the few things he knows of where the reality doesn’t let you down.” The best parts of the novel are French’s descriptions of the Irish countryside, where “the autumn sun gives the greens of the fields an impossible, mythic radiance and transforms the back roads into light-muddled paths where a goblin with a riddle, or a pretty maiden with a basket, could be waiting around every gorse-and-bramble bend.” Cal’s search for Brendan, however, soon reveals to him the darker aspects of country life, even as he forms a bond with Trey, teaching the kid how to refinish an old desk, paint walls, shoot a rifle, and other such manly occupations.

As Richard Slotkin observed in his 1992 classic Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, the distinctly American genre of the hard-boiled detective novel evolved from the conventions of the Western, to address “the problem of adapting the traditional concept of democratic heroism, based on the Myth of the Frontier, to a post-Frontier America.” Instead of the frontier of the Western mythos—a place where the pristine “wilderness” is contaminated by the beginnings of society and the manly hero must fight to keep evil from prevailing—the city where the hard-boiled detective operates is already lost. “Down these mean streets,” Raymond Chandler wrote in the 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” “a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” and he must be “a man of honor.” It’s a chivalric notion, but set in a fallen world, and in The Big Sleep, Chandler has Philip Marlowe look over a chessboard midgame and contemplate moving one of the knights, before he realizes, “It wasn’t a game for knights.”*

But French’s overt reference here is to the 1956 film The Searchers, directed by Irish American filmmaker John Ford. This remains one of the most powerful Hollywood movies about racism because the central character, Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, has the outward trappings of a Western hero (not the least of which is being played by Wayne) and clearly believes himself to be a “man of honor,” yet he is eaten alive inside by bitterness, rage, and hatred. He is solitary, uncompromising, a piner for lost love, an adherent to a code of his own making. He is also, as he realizes at the end of the movie, unfit for the very community he believes he has devoted himself to defending.

This seems like prime Tana French territory. In The Witch Elm, her golden-boy narrator, Toby, discovers that the Dublin he’s moved blithely through during his privileged young life is in fact rife with injustice and cruelty, all transpiring under his oblivious nose. With uncanny timing, the novel arrived in the midst of the #MeToo movement, just after Brett Kavanaugh pitched a tantrum about liking beer in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That Cal is former Chicago PD and that he appears to have left the job because in the last couple of years he woke up each morning with a “thick knotted certainty that something bad was rolling towards him, something unpreventable and implacable, like a hurricane or a mass shooting”—all of this hints at a coming reckoning with the police violence he has left behind.

At the risk of being spoilerish, I’m going to recommend that you not anticipate any such thing. Cal’s experiences investigating Brendan’s disappearance will challenge him, but in ways that don’t shift him fundamentally, as French’s plots usually do. Surely that’s because history has caught up with French this time around, instead of vice versa. The bits of The Searcher that address race and the cops back in the U.S. feel a bit tacked on. More importantly, how can Cal have a crisis of faith in the morality of his old job when that faith and the purpose it once brought to his life have already been lost before he arrives in Ardnakelty? Yet French’s hero could not be the decent, dependable man of action that she clearly intends him to be if he weren’t deeply skeptical about the ethics of urban policing after his years in Chicago.

The Searcher is one of only two French novels that isn’t narrated in the first person. (The other, The Secret Place, is, after The Searcher, her least effective book.) This reflects Cal’s relative lack of a complex, conflicted inner life, both at the beginning and at the end of the novel. He seems like the sort of man who, like Ethan Edwards, might be angry at how his life has played out, yet he isn’t. His one major flaw, an obsessive desire to pursue every case to its conclusion, is hard to fault in a fictional sleuth; in fact, it may be the only trait readers of the genre absolutely require in a detective. But what’s been most spellbinding in French’s novels is the quest to obtain truth through the imperfect vehicle of the human psyche and the way that her detectives stare so long into the mystery that they find the mystery staring back into them. Cal comes away from his investigation with his sense of himself more or less intact. That makes him the kind of hero it’s all too easy to find somewhere else.

Correction, Sept. 29, 2020: This article originally misidentified the protagonist of The Big Sleep as Sam Spade. Spade is the protagonist of The Maltese Falcon.