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Tana French’s The Searcher is a cop novel for the restorative justice era

Cop stories are under scrutiny right now. The Searcher offers a new perspective.

The Searcher by Tana French.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The cocktail party summary of the career of Tana French, the American Irish novelist with a devoted cult following, is that she writes literary thrillers. What that means, loosely, is that French’s novels are character-based rather than trope-based. Each of her mysteries is designed to take apart the character of the detective who solves it, so that to finally crack the case, the detective must fundamentally change themselves.

In French’s compelling but uneven latest novel, The Searcher, the detective is Cal Hooper, and the center of Cal’s character is his understanding of himself as a good cop. Cal thinks of himself as the good guy who catches the bad guys. And the thing he has to fundamentally change in himself before the end of the book is his belief in the utility of the law enforcement system.

Cal is nursing some doubts about the bad apples he worked with in the Chicago PD as The Searcher opens. That’s part of why he decided to retire to a plot of land in western Ireland to fix up a ramshackle house and live quietly: He saw police brutality, and he saw Black kids who were terrified of him, and he decided to opt out of the whole situation.

But Cal still fundamentally believes that if someone who he cares about is hurt, then the best and most loving thing for him to do is to be a cop. It’s for him to go out and find the person who hurt his loved one, and then hurt them back.

What happens to Cal over the course of The Searcher challenges that belief. It turns this cop novel into an unexpected argument for the power of restorative justice.

The Searcher’s ambitions don’t always pay off, but they’re interesting nonetheless

Most of French’s novels take place in or around Dublin, but with The Searcher, she moves to the tiny village of Ardnakelty. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone’s business, and Cal, a country boy at heart, is happy to play along with the locals. Gamely he buys cookies for his nosy neighbor Mart, whom he determines early on secretly runs the place, and he grins his way through the grocery lady’s matchmaking attempts. He’s good at getting to know communities, and he’s good at or being friendly toward them.

But someone is watching Cal in his home: a constantly grimy 13-year-old named Trey from the wrong side of town. Trey’s older brother Brandon has gone missing, and now the kid wants answers. And Cal, who misses the adult daughter he left behind in America, feels both a father’s protectiveness for the wayward Trey and a cop’s desire to get the bottom of Brandon’s disappearance. He starts a discreet investigation, even as Mart and the rest of his neighbors warn him to stay far, far away from this problem.

As with most Tana French mysteries, the question of what happened to Brandon involves real estate. Most pressingly, The Searcher is interested in what will happen to a tiny little farming town when land is so cheap that retired American cops can come swanning in and buy extensive property for just $30,000 a pop, when all the girls who don’t inherit farms are bound and determined to make it out of there, and when all the boys who do inherit find themselves stuck and alone. The mystery of Brandon is the mystery of his generation, who inherited a world set up for an economy that no longer exists.

Yet French is deeply invested in the aching, wistful beauty of rural Ireland. She’s described The Searcher as her take on a Western, and accordingly, she lavishes attention on the natural landscape, where “the air is rich as fruitcake, like you should do more with it than just breathe it; bite off a big mouthful, maybe, or rub handfuls of it all over your face,” and where violence lurks below the most bucolic of scenes.

As larger themes go, this is all good, meaty stuff. But The Searcher is not the richest of French’s novels, perhaps because it is so invested in its political themes and its setting that it never quite develops its central characters as carefully as French has in her other books. The central cast here is likable but rarely surprising, and there’s a touch of the generic to charming, smarter-than-he-looks, good-ol’-boy Cal. At times, he reads as though French carbon-copied Frank Mackey, the protagonist of 2010’s Faithful Place, and then changed his accent.

But that generic quality is one of the risks inherent to what French is doing with The Searcher. She’s going back to that hoariest of old stories, the righteous and honorable police officer trying to help a child, and she is trying to get the righteous police officer to question the entire genre in which he exists. Cal feels generic because he is: He’s a symbol of his genre.

Cop stories offer us an easy, cathartic pleasure. The Searcher tries to complicate that pleasure.

Cal’s genre is currently under heavy scrutiny. In the wake of this summer’s George Floyd protests and the ensuing police riots, pop culture has registered a growing discomfort with any story that treats the police as heroes. Cops was canceled. Crime novelists and actors alike started distancing themselves from the genre.

But stories where the cops get to be heroes are also immensely popular. They offer a deep, easy pleasure, a sense of catharsis and security: Here is a world where every bad guy gets caught, where every good guy wears a uniform, where we can trust the people who are supposed to take care of us to always, always do that, and to always solve the mystery, no matter how tricky it is.

Tana French novels have never been easy, per se, and the cops in her stories are often conflicted about their work. But they are also usually decent people who are doing their best. So are most of their colleagues. And while the system in which they work is flawed, it’s also the only one they’ve got.

But as The Searcher opens, Cal is starting to look for a different system. He keeps thinking about the time his daughter got mugged in college, and Cal immediately left her in the hospital with his wife and went out to track down the mugger and put him behind bars, which he did successfully. Afterward, he couldn’t understand why his wife and daughter were so angry at him. Hadn’t he successfully gotten justice for his daughter? Hadn’t he done what a cop is supposed to do, what cop stories teach us cops should do? What more could anyone ask of him?

As The Searcher goes on, Cal grows more and more attached to Trey, and there’s a lovely warmth and tenderness to the scenes that show them doing odd jobs and carpentry and going rabbit hunting side by side. (Cal is very careful vis-à-vis the appropriateness of hanging around a lonely 13-year-old by himself.) So when Trey gets badly hurt, we believe that Cal is shocked and furious, and ready to do what he believes a cop should do in this situation, what he did for his daughter: find the person who hurt Trey, and then hurt them back.

But in The Searcher, that’s not the answer. Cal can’t punch what hurt Trey, because what hurt Trey is not a person, it’s a system. And punching someone wouldn’t actually fix the problem anyway. What Trey needs is for someone to listen with empathy and say, “What you are feeling matters.”

So in the end, the best thing Cal can provide for the person he cares about isn’t revenge. What he needs to offer instead is actually a social worker.

Valuing social workers as much as we value cops is more or less what advocates for restorative justice have been arguing for all year. What French is doing in The Searcher is trying to build a value system that cares about social workers into a novel that can still offer us the cathartic pleasure of watching a clever detective solve a case — while also maintaining her trademark complexity of character and theme.

The Searcher doesn’t quite pull off every element of this balancing act. But it’s fascinating to watch French try.