Fans of Tana French’s novels know how hard it can be to categorize her writing. Her books often appear in articles about ‘genre-defying’ reads, or lists of ‘literary crime’, with a tone of defiance: this is about more than the plot, this is crime writing that is also beautiful, stark, thought-provoking. Which is nonsense, of course, or at least shines light on the nonsense that is describing something purely by genre: a good book is a good book is a good book. The Searcher is a good book.
This is the second standalone novel written by French, leaving behind the world of the cult favourite ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series (the unofficial title became official when the first two novels were adapted by the BBC and Starz – words and names shifting unsteadily is, fittingly, very French). Each book of the Dublin Murders is written from a different detective’s perspective, so they act well as standalones, but with glimmers of information linking the two. The hero of one book is relegated to a minor annoyance in the next; the character we see as a bit of comic relief is later shown in a vast and painful new light. French did something similar with her twisty amnesiac thriller The Wych Elm: driven by plot upon plot, it left you feeling unsure of anything. This is another Frenchian tick, another way to unsettle the demands of genre: there is not always an answer. Crime does not always mean closure.
“There is no real evil in this novel. Its scope is somehow simultaneously smaller than what you might be imagining and also far, far greater.”
The Searcher undoes a lot of what The Wych Elm, and more broadly, the Dublin Murder series, did. It has all the trappings of plot: a poor boy has gone missing from a small Irish village; his younger sibling is the only one who seems to care; the locals are close, perhaps suspiciously so; everyone can feel that there’s something going on. But this time, the point-of-view character and detective-figure Cal is an outsider, possibly as much of an outsider as he could be: a divorced ex-policeman from Chicago. Pairing up with the squirrely Trey, Cal starts to look into the disappearance of Brendan and the village’s secrets.
You expect twists from French, and there are some: one made me rethink everything that had gone before. But whereas before these might have been earth-shattering revelations about plot – about what had happened in whatever crime the novel is ostensibly dealing with – here, the writing is more concerned with character. Cal and Trey are drawn deeply, carefully. There is badness, or there is difficulty, or there is tradition and fear and the dangerous, instinctive urge to protect a gradually tightening village whose children all leave for Dublin, or for England, but there is no real evil in this novel. Its scope is somehow simultaneously smaller than what you might be imagining and also far, far greater. It’s subtle, perhaps that is the best way to describe it, and it doesn’t need tricks or twists or surprises to make it one of French’s most chilling books yet.
words: Alice Wickenden
Alice Wickenden’s To Fall Fable is published on January 1 by Variant Literature.