Tana French's first novel, In the Woods—the first in the Dublin Murder Squad series—came out in 2007. It announced a new voice in crime fiction, one that has continued to turn out atmospheric, complex, and fascinating police procedurals. The writer who “inspires cultic devotion in readers” (The New Yorker) switched it up for the haunting and suspenseful standalone, The Witch Elm.
Now, she’s back with another standalone: The Searcher. The titular searcher is a retired Chicago PD detective who’s seeking out a quiet life in a small Irish town. Per French, Cal Hooper “has an expectation in line with the Irish Tourism Board view of rural Ireland,” but what he actually gets is anything but. I recently talked with French by video call about her new book, and despite the time difference making it a late evening call for her (Dublin is eight hours ahead of Seattle), she gamely told me all about The Searcher.
Vannessa Cronin, Amazon Book Review: So, please describe your new book, The Searcher.
Tana French: It's a little bit of a departure for me because it's set in the west of Ireland this time, in a small village that I made up called Ardnaskelty, and it's about a detective from North Carolina who's taking early retirement after 25 years with the Chicago PD, and he's gone to live in a little fixer-upper of a house in this little village, and what he's looking for is peace and quiet. But he doesn't get it because a local kid comes looking for him and wants Cal to investigate what happened to his brother, who has gone missing. And Cal has no intention of ever doing any detecting ever again but the kid's not giving up, and slowly he realizes that this kid, Trey, is arm-twisting him out of his retirement into investigating, and along the way he finds out that the little village is not as peaceful and harmonious as he thought.
Trey is such an interesting character, and he flies in the face of this cheerful villager idea. There's almost a caste system in the village, with Trey's family at the bottom of it, getting no assistance from anyone.
Yes, in a way Trey's fallen between stools. He's fallen between two societies: the wider society doesn't care, and the smaller, local society doesn't care. And the idea of both the police and the village going, “I know your 19 year old brother's gone missing but sure, you're a bad lot anyway, who cares?” That's shocking to Cal, and that's what drags him out of his retirement. He's going, "I can't leave this 13 year old kid with nobody willing to find out what happened to his brother. He's got nothing and nobody. I'm going to have to be it.” So, in many ways he's the only person who could help Trey. And Trey comes to that relationship with the intensity that you'd expect from someone who's found not only his last chance, but his perfect chance.
I keep thinking of Frank Mackey from the Dublin Murder Squad, who's a complicated man but you get the sense that he knows it, whereas Cal is no less complicated but he isn't quite as aware of it.
Absolutely. I'm really glad that came through because Cal really doesn't want to be a complicated man, and he doesn't want the world to be complicated. To him, it seems like things should be simple. As long as you treat people right, things will go all right. And he's not allowed to keep that illusion. With what happened to him early in the book, in his job and in his marriage, that shattered his idea. He's tried to run away from these things by coming to Ardnaskelty.
So what is it about writing about the west of Ireland that’s different from writing about Dublin City, as you do in the Dublin Murder Squad series?
I've always loved the west of Ireland. As a teenager I went Irish College. Not sure that will translate, but for American readers, it's where you go off for 3 weeks to somewhere where Irish is the spoken language. There's a few hundred of you speaking only Irish to get the language into your head. I spent three summers there when I was a teenager, in the west of Ireland, in Irish College, and I've gone back every chance I could, and I love it.
The west is stunningly beautiful but it's a very different kind of beauty compared to the east, which is where I live. The east is gentle and green and it's got the rolling hills, and the west is wilder, it's harsher. It's got Atlantic winds, Atlantic waves, and it's a very different kind of landscape.
I was reading a lot of westerns around the time that I started thinking about the idea that would eventually turn out to be The Searcher, and it seemed to me that the settings of westerns had a lot of resonance with the west of Ireland because it's tough country, it's harsh country, and it demands both physical and mental toughness of anyone who's planning on living there.
And also, it's got that sense, like in westerns, of a place that's really distant—both geographically and mentally—from the centers of power, so that the people living there feel that the power brokers don't have any idea what their lives are like. They're completely disconnected and they've got to make their own rules and enforce those rules themselves.
So it's writing about very different people from the urban people of Dublin, and it's about a very different place. But I used to daydream about the west when I wasn't there, in such vivid detail that I could smell the smells, and see the sights, and feel the air which feels different from anywhere else in the world. And when I was writing this book I was hoping to bring some of that alive for readers because it's such a wonderful place.
I grew up in the country, about 10 miles outside Cork City, and there's a big difference between the way Dubliners speak and the way people in the rest of the country speak. I thought the way you picked up the rural idioms was remarkable. How did you go about that?
Thank you. I had to get that vetted a bit because you know, 30 years in Dublin, my ear is attuned to Dublin, and I would catch myself occasionally throwing in a Dublin phrase. You know, "the mammy" versus "my mam." There's little differences between Dublin and the country that you have to keep a sharp eye out for and go back and vet over and over again, and get someone from the country to vet it as well, which is what I did in the end. I said, "Is my Dub showing here?" and got it checked.
Like The Witch Elm, The Searcher is a standalone. Does this mean you're done with the Dublin Murder Squad series for a while or for good?
I never rule it out. I had too much fun with that murder squad. I really enjoyed that. I liked having an established world built up where you have certain people recur, like the pathologist, and the head of the Murder Squad, in a hierarchy that's stable. And you can move around within that and show what it looks like from certain perspectives, different characters, and how they experience it differently. So, I really enjoyed doing that and I'd never rule out going back to it. I just felt that I had looked at the perspective of a murder investigation from a detective's perspective six times. So that's why, in The Witch Elm, Toby is all of those things at different times and why, in The Searcher, Cal's like a detective with none of the tools of the job. I like the idea of seeing an investigation in different ways. For now, anyway, I'm sticking with that, but who knows down the line?
Well, I'm glad to hear that the door isn't closed. And it sounds like it's fun for you to do something different.
Oh, it really is. It's great fun. It's also liberating, because those same markers I put down for the Dublin Murder Squad world, they're great to have, but they do confine you a little bit. And now with this, I can make up the world from scratch. I don't ever want to end up writing the same book over and over. Especially if you write genre, the basic format is fairly fixed: A kills B, C finds out who did it. It's very easy to fall into doing roughly the same thing over and over in a different key, and I don't ever want to fall into that trap. So, the idea was that this one is going to be different: it's going to be in the third person, and it's going to be about a person of action rather than all up inside his head the way Toby was in the Witch Elm—and the way many of my narrators have been. In many of my books the focus of the action has been inside the main character's head, that's where the core of the book has been. So I like the idea of someone for whom what he does is more important than what he thinks.
We can’t let you go without asking how your reading is faring during Covid. Are you reading more than ever before or less?
I've been reading loads, but a lot of it has been re-reading. I've retreated, I think, into the equivalent of comfort food. Loads of Agatha Christie and loads of P.D. James—stuff like that, which may not be my favorite books in the world, but I know everything is going to be sorted out in the end. I mean, Agatha Christie, you know what you're getting, you know it's all going to get tied up in the end. And I don't know if this counts, because I got an early sneak peek; it's not out for a few more weeks yet, but Stephen Spotswood's debut novel, Fortune Favors the Dead, it's great. It's a 1940s noir with a bit of a twist to it. [It features] two female detectives trying to investigate a murder in 1940s America. It's a lot of fun. It's got all that whip-smart, fun dialogue that you expect from noir, but it's got a twist or two.
Tana French’s books have won awards including the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards, the Los Angeles Times Award for Best Mystery/Thriller, and the Irish Book Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Dublin with her family.
We talked with Tana French about her new novel, "The Searcher," westerns, comfort reading, and the fate of the Dublin Murder Squad.