The Hamilton Spectator

Irish American

Tana French’s new thriller, set in western Ireland, is a sequel to ‘The Searcher.’

- By SADIE STEIN SADIE STEIN is an editor at the Book Review.

FOUR YEARS AGO in these pages, the critic Janet Maslin published a guide to “the essential Tana French.” For some of French’s fans, all the novels are essential. Others prefer her standalone­s or her Dublin Murder Squad series — six loosely connected mysteries that explore different viewpoints and settings within the reassuring confines of one department. Unpredicta­bility and a refusal to be boring are part of French’s talent, and they make the books (almost) as much fun to debate as they are to read.

“The Searcher,” published in 2020, felt like a sort of cousin to the earlier books; its hero, Cal Hooper, is an ex-cop from Chicago who’s seeking a measure of peace by moving to a remote village in western Ireland. Instead, a rebellious, preteen outcast named Trey Reddy enlists his help in finding her missing brother. As Cal soon learns, Ardnakelty’s hills are roiling with “unseen things”; the close-knit community is claustroph­obic and self-policing. Its tacit rules and codes prove nearly impenetrab­le.

In “The Hunter,” Cal, two years older, is still living in Ardnakelty. By now, rural Ireland has lost its romantic charm, but he has found actual romance with a local woman, Lena, and developed a paternal relationsh­ip with the teenage Trey. Smart, angry and talented, Trey — who helps Cal refinish and repair old furniture — has earned the grudging respect of villagers slow to relinquish their idea of the Reddy family as the anointed town losers.

When Trey’s feckless father, Johnny, reappears, he’s trailing get-rich-quick schemes and a wealthy Londoner eager to reconnect with his roots — a “plastic paddy” filled with dreams of the Ould Sod. Cal and Lena want Trey to stay well clear, but she has different ideas. This is more than a teenager’s rebellion; what Trey can’t see is that the adults are battling for her future in a place where fatalism has just about taken the place of religion.

To an outsider, the predictabl­e rhythms of village life (Thursdays at the pub; gossip at the grocery store) look quaintly

unchanged; we — through Cal — know differentl­y. No one in Ardnakelty is under any illusions: Elderly bachelors lack for wives, young people can’t find jobs and climate change is destroying their way of life in real time.

As a pair, the Cal Hooper novels paint a rich portrait of a time and place. But this is the rare Tana French novel where I do think it’s necessary to have read the predecesso­r, despite a fair amount of painstakin­g exposition. And while some of this pacing feels deliberate — of a piece with the “brazen, unbudging” heat and the long, tense summer days — at times it lags.

French’s dialogue is some of the best in the business, and it’s a delight to watch her move between American and Irish vernacular. In general, the novel’s greatest pleasures — genuine twists aside — reside in the specific intersecti­on of outsider and native, and particular­ly the former’s determined need to idealize, to claim, to tint whole rivers green — “a bad case of allurement.”

Perhaps this is why Cal sometimes feels more like an avatar than a fully fleshedout character. We’re told he’s a standup guy so often that we start to wonder what his actual dark side is. Lena, too, is reliably decent, and both, we are told often, love Trey. But they lack the knottiness of the rest of the cast — like the wily, enigmatic village nerve center Mart Lavin (one of French’s greatest creations) and the energy of the anarchic Trey. French is, quite simply, better at bad guys, or at least, tricky ones.

And Ardnakelty is nothing if not tricky. The secretive village is a trope as old as mysteries — as old as humanity itself. But French does more than show the banal evil behind a smiling face. She makes it particular as a kicked dog’s limp and dying embers in a steel barrel — and reminds us that we underestim­ate such places at our peril.

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