Cal Hooper, 48, retired after 25 years with the Chicago Police Department, and single since his wife Donna left him, bought a fixer-upper home in the [fictional] village of Ardnakelty in the West of Ireland. Since moving in, he was getting to know his neighbors, who seemed welcoming if intrusive, and gradually restoring the house. But then he started to feel a vague sense of threat as if someone were watching him. He finally managed to catch the culprit: it turned out to be 13-year-old Trey Reddy, a neighbor from a family considered to be the “white trash” of the area. Trey’s older brother Brandon was missing, and Trey was desperate to find him. Trey knew the local police wouldn’t care, and fairly insisted that Cal, a former cop, had to help.
Donna always said that “Cal was addicted to fixing things, like a guy jabbing on and on at a slot machine, unable to leave it alone until the lights flashed and the prize came pouring out.” He allowed she was probably right. He set out to do what he could for Trey, albeit without any of a cop’s usual investigative technology, and find out if he could what happened to Brendan. Cal wasn’t so sure that Brendan didn’t just take off for greener pastures, but Trey was convinced Brendan wouldn’t do that. Cal, however, thought that “nineteen-year-olds, almost all of them, don’t have their feet on the ground. They’re turning loose from their families and they haven’t found anything else to moor themselves to; they blow like tumbleweed. They’re unknowns, to the people who used to know them inside out and to themselves.”
Nevertheless, Cal finds that indeed, something more sinister was afoot than he first surmised. It turned out Ardnakelty was full of secrets and pathology belied by its gorgeous setting. In this passage, Cal concludes his new surroundings are to blame for his initial blindness to what was going on:
“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 his handful of gold coins till they melt into dead leaves in front of his eyes. If all this had happened in some depressing suburban clot of tract homes and ruler-measured lawns, he would have kept his wits about him.”
Cal and Trey are both physically threatened to stop looking into what happened to Branden, but neither one could quit. As the secrets of the town gradually become exposed, the danger to both of them increases.
Discussion: This story is quite different from Tana French’s Dublin murder squad series; rather, the pace is slow and the atmospheric tone dominates the plot. The characters are developed as richly as ever with French, however. My enjoyment of the book was somewhat hampered by the fact that I couldn’t stand one character in particular but, like Cal, I didn’t realize until the end that there was a deliberate reason for his obnoxious behavior.
The “big reveals” come out slowly, although there are plenty of unsettling scenes to build an ambience of understated and amorphous menace. Interestingly, while a host of social issues underlay the story, they are never overtly discussed; they are just there – from the ravages of poverty and resulting lack of hope and dreams; the alienation of young people in those circumstances and the behaviors they adopted to cope with or escape from it; the responsibility that accompanies being in a relationship; the importance of having a moral code; and above all, the notion of “frontier justice.”
French herself has said in interviews that this story is a nod to the John Ford Western, “The Searchers.” She observed:
“. . . one of the things I noticed was that the generic Western setting has a lot of resonances with the west of Ireland. There’s a harsh countryside that demands real physical and mental toughness from anyone who wants to make a living out of it. And there’s that sense that this is a place very far from the locus of power and lawmaking. It’s so far away that people can easily feel that the powers that be have no knowledge of their daily lives, and so if they want there to be a law to their society, a set of rules that makes their society function, they have to come up with those themselves.”
Evaluation: I prefer the Dublin murder series, yet this Tana French novel is such a beautifully written and complex story that I found myself still thinking about it long after I finished it.
Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2020