“A Vast Invisible Web”: Tana French’s The Searcher

The Searcher is Tana French’s second stand-alone novel, and the first to be written in third person. Although I regularly mourn the waning of third-person narration, I was surprised by French’s choice, as so much of the magic of her previous seven books stems from their brilliant use of unreliable first-person.

I’m a huge fan of French’s; in my opinion, there’s no better writer in crime fiction today. I even love the books that most readers dislike, The Likeness (2008) and The Secret Place (2014). (No accident that these are the most female-centered of her novels.) I especially love The Secret Place, set largely in a girl’s school, with its dreamy terrors, though, if pressed, I’d choose Broken Harbour (2012), set in the Gothic ruins of the Celtic Tiger’s economic collapse, as my favourite French. (Or maybe The Trespasser. It’s hard!)

No surprise, then, I think French succeeds with close third-person narration as much as with first-person. But this isn’t just the fan in me talking. French has been careful in her decision. What sets her novels apart isn’t just her mastery of suspense—surprisingly rare in crime fiction—but her patient, intelligent consideration of friendship. Reading a French novel you are led to ask not only whodunnit but, more esoterically, why do you have the friends you have; what distinguishes relationships that are freely chosen from those mandated by expectations (family) or contingency (work); which comes first, selfhood or friendship; are you drawn to your friends, and they to you, because of who you are; or do you become who you are because of those friends?

To be sure many of French’s novels do center on work relationships, namely the ones formed between cops. (Her first six novels are set in the fictional Dublin Murder Squad.) But in French’s hands, these partnerships, even if they are initially formed arbitrarily (x gets assigned to work with y), take on an intense, hothouse quality. The characters spend as much time sussing out each other as they do the crime. French’s cops are more like friends—really, more like frenemies—than like colleagues.

Some people, I know, don’t care for French because her language, concerns, and structure all tend to excess. But I love how she queers the conventions of detective fiction. French is a particularly Irish writer, inhabiting that great tradition of writers who mimic only to destabilize English realism (Swift, Le Fanu, Wilde, Joyce, Bowen, Beckett, etc.). Like these illustrious compatriots, French is swoony, preposterous, Gothic; she is a burst of febrile invention in the stylistically staid world of crime writing, a genre that, however invested in social change, is realist to its bones. (I’m talking about how it describes the world, not whether it’s plausible, which, so often, it isn’t. Not a criticism, by the way.)

French’s previous novel, The Witch Elm (2018), wasn’t just French’s first stand-alone, it was literally about what it means to stand alone, a question it explored by considering vigilantism and by using the protagonist’s head trauma to question the very idea of a coherent self. Other crime novels have used concussed or neuro-challenged detectives—off the top of my head, I think of examples by Margery Allingham, Howard Engel, and Henning Mankell—but always to ask questions about reason (can the crime be solved by a detective who can’t think “normally”?) rather than about identity. Yet The Witch Elm’s narrator was still enmeshed in a social world; he had all sorts of people worrying about him (and worrying him: the people in his life choked him with their concern). As this description implies, the book was also written in first person, taking French’s genius for charming but dubious narrators to its greatest height. In this regard, The Witch Elm was of a piece with the rest of her books. Taken together they make a brilliant, paradoxical argument about narration: the best way to show someone’s connections to others is to tell their story in first-person.

The Searcher shows the reverse to be true as well: third-person shows isolation. Cal Hooper has retired, at age 48, from the Chicago police. (As someone of the same age, I was curious but also dubious about the financial logistics of this plan. But I digress.) Wanting to put the job behind him—or, rather, his mixed feelings about it; his inability to any longer believe the police are fundamentally useful (an idea more and more crime writers are understandably wrestling with these days; too bad this is the most cursory, least interesting part of the book)—not to mention his recent divorce, Cal has come to rural Ireland, where he’s bought a tumble-down cottage and devotes his days to restoring it.

Cal loves his new life—frying the good Irish bacon while blasting Steve Earle, feeling his body return from decades of sedentary work, marveling bemusedly at the changeable weather—but he also feels ill at ease. He doesn’t know the place, doesn’t know everyone’s back story, doesn’t understand what the locals are actually saying when they seem to be chatting pleasantly. A parliament of rooks watches skeptically over his yard. People stop talking when he enters the pub. More to the point, someone is watching him, he can just tell.

The someone turns out to be a thirteen-year-old named Trey Reddy, whose beloved older brother disappeared a few months back. Everyone knows the family is shiftless—father fucked off, mother overwhelmed, kids going to school only when they feel like it—so they assume Brendan lighted out for something better, maybe in the city. He’ll be back eventually, chastened no doubt. Trey knows differently, knows no one cares like Brendan does, knows this older brother wouldn’t leave without saying something or sending word. Trey wants Cal, the ex-cop to find his brother.

The ex-cop doesn’t want to, but gets pulled in against his better judgment. The truth turns out to be fairly simple, but also messy, leaving no one untouched, and it proves Cal’s early intuition about that his bucolic new home is a heaving mass of secrets. Like so many of French’s characters, he feels that the world as we know it only barely makes sense, its meaning a hair’s breadth from meaninglessness:

All of a sudden he has that sensation… an intense awareness of the spread of the dark countryside all around his house; a sense of being surrounded by a vast invisible web, where one wrong touch could shake things so far distant he hasn’t even spotted them.

Distant things—the syntax here can trip us up if we’re not careful—do get shaken, and people do get hurt (physically, not just emotionally: it’s a violent book). Their trust in each other, their ease with each other, their sense of being safe with each other—all are badly eroded. By the end French leaves us a glimmer of hope that some relationships might survive; that people need each other is never in doubt. That’s true even when the relationships on offer are harmful. One drunken night at the pub Cal thinks he might finally have been accepted by the locals, then realizes he’s being played in a way he can’t yet understand. But he so hungers for “the effortless rhythms of the talk snapping back and forth across the table” that he’s willing to take what he can get: “He may not know these men, but they know each other, and there’s comfort in being around that.”

Reading The Searcher I would occasionally stumble over Cal’s folksy, backwoods, aw shucks language: “So if I show up at your place and start visiting with your mama, you never saw me before.” Visiting, your mama—these Southernisms are explained away (he moved to Chicago from the Carolinas)—but that Cal would think of and to himself in the same way, as shown by the appearance of similar language in the free indirect discourse, seems a bit much. (“On his way out Cal has himself a nice long wander around the lane behind Francie Gannon’s fields.”) What I’m saying is that French has never written an American before, and it shows.

Or does it? As always, French is ahead of her readers. If we think she’s failed, then the joke’s on us. We’ve been too quick to reach for plausibility and realism. Cal’s southernisms, his whole good ol’ boy persona, are strategic, useful in lulling suspects into dismissing him. And they may not just be his disguise, they may be the novel’s too. Finishing the book, I got to thinking about the title, which of course has many possible referents: Cal, Trey, Brendan, the locals Cal finds himself among, and, not least, readers. So many searchers. But then why hasn’t French used the plural? I thought, of course, about a text that does, John Ford’s classic western, The Searchers (1956). And to be sure Cal is taken by the men down the pub as a kind of John Wayne, and fashions himself as one too. Cross-cultural encounters usually start with stereotypes: here, the locals make lots of hay about Americans as gun-toting zealots; in turn, they revel in their Irishness (“‘Sure, I’ve no need for that carry-on at my age,” Cal’s neighbour says when they banter over the fence, “‘What sins would I commit, an aul’ lad like me? I haven’t even got the broadband.’”) French, I think, is up to something here. She wrongfoots us with these clichés. What truths do they tell? What do they conceal? What happens when a Western is transplanted to western Ireland?

In Ford’s film, Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a confederate soldier drifting across Texas in the wake of the Civil War. On a visit to his brother’s homestead, his relatives are murdered in a Comanche raid. All except Ethan’s nieces, whose fate—they have been taken hostage—is even worse in Ethan’s eyes. Along with his adopted nephew (already challenging the idea that family is primarily biological), Ethan launches a quest to release them—which also means to redeem them—thereby restoring the “civilizing” function of white settlers, as symbolized by the houses that bookend the film. Famously, however, Ethan is uneasy in both, always framed in doorways, coming in only to leave again. Domesticating walls can’t contain him, not because he is a free spirit but because the civilization The Searchers pretends to uphold is predicated on the ineradicable violence he symbolizes and, like some vigilante Ancient Mariner, is enjoined to enact.

I wouldn’t say French’s novel is an homage or even a reworking of Ford’s film. A riposte maybe. But I definitely think she has Westerns on her mind. When Lena, the novel’s neatly deflected love interest, explains that the problem with rural Ireland is that young women leave for better things because their families won’t give them land, which leaves a landscape of bachelors, men who lash out because they’ve no young people around to show them that a changing world isn’t terrible. When Cal suggests that having kids makes you want to fight things, too, Lena replies:

That’s different. If you’ve kids, you’re always looking out into the world to see if anything needs fighting, because that’s where they’re headed; you’re not barricading yourself indoors and listening for the Indians to attack.

Lena is the most sensible person in the novel; she voices French’s rejection of the ethos of the Western. But French can’t escape the questions about our bonds to other people the genre poses. The solution isn’t for everyone to settle down and have lots of children, or even for women to be able to work the land as much as men do. It’s to imagine different kinds of relationships between the generations that exceed the familial. Which is where French is different than Ford. In the film, the relationship between Ethan and his surviving niece isn’t close, isn’t parental, but still familial. She is kin. In the novel, Cal and Trey’s relationship can be generative because it’s unnecessary, and even not quite socially sanctioned. (Cal is warned that people will talk—and, it is intimated, do more than talk—if they learn how much time he is spending with the child.) If Cal is a father figure to Trey the novel emphasizes the figure rather than the father.

Even though it contains French’s signature unsettling undercurrents of strong negative emotions, The Searcher is sweeter than The Searchers. In the end, I’m not completely sold on it; disappointingly, its style is less luxurious than usual for French. But it’s plenty suspenseful, and plenty smart, a fine addition to a wonderful oeuvre. It’s a good book about dogs, too, valuing them for what they are rather than sentimentalizing them. Which is fitting, for the affect between dogs and people is also neither biological nor, for the most part, useful—it is unearned and thus free, a gift that is just as powerful as the one that arises between Cal and Trey, the novel’s differently burdened but equally capable protagonists. Solitude is a fantasy, this worthwhile new novel teaches, and bad for you too. But the relationships our society legitimates aren’t always the remedy for that harm. It’s for a new kind of relationship—a new version of friendship—that The Searcher searches.

6 thoughts on ““A Vast Invisible Web”: Tana French’s The Searcher

  1. Much as I enjoyed reading your commentary on this novel (particularly in the context of The Searchers and Westerns in general), I’m probably more attracted to French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. So my question is, can I jump straight in with Broken Harbour, the fourth in the series, or would that mean missing out on some of the (important?) nods to previous storylines or elements of character development from books 1-3? In other words, how important is it to start at the beginning and read them in order?

    • IIRC correctly, I read the third first, and then went back to the beginning.
      She does something clever in the Murder Squad books: the first person narrator in each was a minor character in the previous book. So they work *both* as stand-alones and as a series.
      All of which is to say, yes, you miss a little bit by just jumping in but not nearly as much as with most series. And you’ll never have the previous crimes spoiled.
      So go for Broken Harbour, I say!

  2. I’ve not read as much of her as you have, but I think the thing that I loved about The Likeness was the very thing that frustrated many readers (which one cannot even reference without massively spoiling it, one way or another). Besides her knack for a good story with interesting characters and, eventually, the whole multiple POV structure (which I thoroughly enjoy). Perhaps she’s better not binged, but just reading your thoughts on this one, with an eye at the stacks of grim/serious reading here at hand, makes me think she might be just the ticket for these dark weeks, makes me yearn for a swath of thick-spined crime stories well-told.

    • Totally agree with you re: The Likeness.
      I also suspect you are right that maybe she is better not binged–I could imagine her seeming mannered if you read too much at once.
      But damn she is good at what she does.

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