DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tana French has gained acclaim as the creator of the "Dublin Murder Squad" crime series, but lately she's branched out into standalone suspense. Her latest novel, "The Searcher," is a straightforward and atmospheric tribute to a genre that's fallen out of favor - the Western, which also helped shape modern detective fiction. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: "The Searcher" by Tana French is a slow burn of a suspense story. It lulls us readers into basking in French's radiant imagery and language, in particular its descriptions of the rough beauty of the west of Ireland, where the story takes place. Then the heat intensifies. By novel's end, any place - even the grimiest, meanest streets of hard-boiled crime fiction - seems preferable to the sinister, silent watchfulness of that lush Irish countryside. As French has acknowledged in interviews, the title of her latest crime novel is a nod to the John Ford classic, "The Searchers." Like Ford's 1956 film, French's novel is essentially a Western, although the novel itself isn't self-conscious about its retro origins, unless that west of Ireland setting is a sly wink. A lone man, an outsider, is drawn into an obsessive quest to find a young person who's disappeared. In Ford's film, that outsider was Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, whose searched for his niece.
French's old soldier is named Cal Hooper. He's divorced and recently retired from the Chicago Police Department. With no ties to bind him, Cal has impulsively acted on his dream and bought a tumbledown Irish cottage advertised on the Internet. It's so remote he can blast his favorite Johnny Cash tunes as he spackles and paints, and only the sheep might complain. But as the mists of autumn close in, Cal realizes that he's not as alone as he thought. The back of his neck, trained over 25 years in the Chicago PD, registers a watcher, someone who's been creeping around the cottage and disturbing the nesting rooks. When Cal corners the voyeur, he turns out to be a wayward adolescent named Trey Reddy, who lives on a nearby mountain with his single mother and wild siblings. Before long, Trey is coming around regularly to help Cal and learn carpentry.
One thing Trey doesn't need to learn is that Cal is an ex-cop. All the gossips in the nearby village have sussed out via Celtic telepathy that the American is an ex-cop. Eventually, Trey confesses the real reason he's been hanging around. He wants Cal to find his beloved 19-year-old brother Brendan, who vanished months ago. The local police have been useless. So it is that Cal gets drawn into the case as we readers knew he would because that's what makes these quiet men who preside over Westerns and detective novels the flawed heroes they are. In the process of searching for Brendan, Cal unearths a bog's worth of secrets and sins festering beneath this quaint patch of the old sod.
To even disclose the small slice of the plot of "The Searcher" is a minor crime because the great power of this suspense story comes from its measured pacing and the intensifying evil of its atmosphere. One of the most unsettling moments in the novel is an extended scene where Cal visits the local pub, basically just another isolated cottage in a field. The men gathered there press shot after shot of a powerful home brew called poteen on Cal. As a tin whistle plays in the background and the men joke and Cal gets drunker, one part of his brain registers that he's being subtly warned off the investigation. And it's not only the human residents of the area who are all too aware of Cal's movements. The very landscape seems to be in collusion with whatever malevolent forces spirited Brendan away. Here's Cal walking down a picturesque lane and realizing he may have been enchanted into making a major life mistake.
The morning has turned lavishly beautiful. 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 is in no mood to appreciate any of it. He feels like this specific beauty is central to the illusion that lulled him into stupidity, turned him into the peasant gazing slack-jawed at this handful of gold coins till they melt into dead leaves in front of his eyes. French's writing here is itself on fire, eerie and nuanced and spellbinding. Indeed, even though to my mind, all of her earlier crime novels have been excellent, this hushed suspense tale about thwarted dreams of escape may be her best yet.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Searcher" by Tana French. On tomorrow's show, we speak with writer Rumaan Alam. His newest and highly anticipated novel is about a white family and older Black couple who find themselves in a beautiful house on a remote, bucolic stretch of Long Island when mysterious things start happening that could portend the collapse of civilization. The book explores issues of race, class, fear and how we respond to crisis. It's called "Leave The World Behind." I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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