Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Searcher.
Former Chicago cop Cal Hooper retires to western Ireland, for reasons that are explained as French's novel unfolds. (Interestingly, there is no explanation of the mechanics of immigration--visas, permanent residency, etc.). Will the move give Cal the quiet life he so richly desires, or will it make matters worse? Though no longer a cop, Cal constantly has the feeling of not knowing what he might set in motion. He is renovating his ramshackle house on a long, cool September stretch of an evening. Here where the rooks proliferate, Cal's eyes must get used to looking far beyond, especially after all those years of city blocks.
Ireland certainly looked beautiful on television, and on the surface it's a picturesque rural hamlet, but underneath Ardnekelty Village is a place of endemic boredom, inhabited mainly by elderly farmers and young men laid off from shuttered factories, now unable to find work and forced to traffic drugs to make a living. It is also a town where petty family rivalries are waged. Though the mental alarm systems have been switched off after 25 years in the Chicago PD, Cal feels welcomed particularly by his talkative neighbor, Matt, and by affable Noreen, who runs the local shop.
Cal does seem to have a gift for making contact with those of very different circumstances. At the local pub, Cal meets "the group"--a shifting bunch of clean-shaven, 40-something white guys who apparently share little apart from nodding about the weather while making passionate comments about a sport called curling. Though there are issues from his past in Chicago involving his ex-wife, Donna, and daughter Alyssa, Cal revels in the cold river water and mountains. While working on his house, he can play his music loud and put "his police sense put back to bed where it belongs."
At first, there's nothing much to be concerned about, just the stuff that flicks at the edges of Cal's "cop sense." When he connects with rough teenager Trey Reddy, he fails to anticipate the dangers that lie ahead. When a day of bonding over wood sanding unleashes a torrent of emotion, Cal sees a kid desperate for an outlet. Trey literally begs Cal to help find Brendan, his missing older brother, who Trey is sure has been kidnapped. While Cal's instinct is that Trey's brother is a teenager and "they do dumb shit like that," Trey is convinced that Brendan "didn't go off."
His pleading unsettles Cal. Because he can never stand to leave a case unresolved, circumstances force him to confront a painful episode that lies buried in Trey and Brendan's past. Cal's uneasy feeling doesn't budge, though most of the villagers who Cal talks to--including Matt--say that Brendan's not missing, he's just a young fellow who "got sick of living up the hills with his mammy" and has gone off to kip on some pal's floor in Galway or Athlone and he'll be back when "he gets tired of doing his own washing."
French's slow-burn mystery has Cal retracing Brendan's last steps, determined to find his whereabouts for Trey's sake. His relationship with Trey keeps Cal honest and true to himself as well as to Lena, a local woman who proves to be a beacon of integrity and a mirror to himself. French seduces us with the wild Irish countryside and Cal's sense of being surrounded by "a vast invisible web," where one wrong touch could shake things far distant. Before heading for home, Cal spreads out what he's got so far: if Brendan is on the run from the police, then at the top of the list has to be drugs. Brendan wanted cash and he had contacts, even if they were just low-level ones. Was he somehow involved in the sheep killing that started not long after he went missing? Cal thinks of Brendan, perhaps staying at his tumbledown cottage again or a cave in the mountainside: "There were wild men out his granddaddy's way, or at least rumors of them." In a tale that involves dealers and junkies ("Buncha lads bring it down from Dublin"), Cal plunges into an unfamiliar darkness, a sawtooth edge of cold where the fields and hedges seem filled with sharp, restless movement.
The Searcher doesn't have much action and suspense, so some of its most memorable moments occur in stillness. The setting is gorgeous, the mountains like "someone took a pocketknife and sliced neat curves out of the star-thick sky." Under the sun's light, the fields blur with an unearthly like mist you could lose yourself in, an endless sweep crisscrossed by the sharp black tangles of hedges and walls. While Cal's developing friendship with Trey is central, the larger issue is whether Ardnekelty has worked out that he's looking into Brendan's disappearance and wants him to "knock this shit off" or think he's just been poking around too much for a stranger and needs instruction in local customs. Cal is a placid, amenable guy. He could have stayed accommodatingly away from Brendan's associates and focused on "the behind the scenes stuff" for a while. Sometimes he feels like the world's biggest fool, out in a foreign country "playing cop" with no badge, no gun, and a 13-year-old kid for company.
Cal's loyalty to Trey shapes his journey. Behind their verbal duels and awkward, stubborn friendship lurks a search for true spirituality. While the novel is slow, it is redolent with language and exquisite expression. In its final pages, The Searcher hints at redemption for Cal and for Trey, something they've both been aching for.