oooh, goodreads choice awards finalist for best mystery & thriller 2020! what will happen?
answer: this will lose to the perfectly fine but
The Guest List, proving that everything about 2020 was broken.
tana french can do no wrong and we need to protect her at all costs: remove every pebble from her path, slather her with sunscreen, and for the love of god, if you find yourself in her vicinity, wear a fucking mask.
i’m sure no one will disagree with me on that, so here’s where i sneak in one of those unpopular opinions. i think this is her best book yet. don’t get me wrong, i adore the dublin murder squad books, and her releasing two standalone books in a row has made me impatient for their return, but i’m one of the people who loved witch elm, and this one kicks that one’s ass.
set in the remote rural landscape of western ireland, this was marketed as “tana french writes a western!” and although i was skeptical at first, about halfway through, i realized it is SUCH a western. not only is the title a nod to The Searchers, but the genre conventions are all right there—the vast wilderness isolating a small population of folks in a self-governing bubble; accustomed to taking care of their own matters in their own way, and not taking kindly to outsiders. and then in rolls the lone stranger; a disruptive force challenging their way of life by taking up the cause of a wronged/powerless individual, thereby going against the collective druthers of the town and jeopardizing his own safety, all shot through with moral grey areas—it’s western AF.
the story centers around cal, a recently retired, divorced policeman from chicago who left the force after becoming disenchanted with what he saw happening on the job; unable to condone questionable police behavior that jarred with his straight-shooting ‘good guys v bad guys’ worldview. anticipating a quieter, simpler life where he can reflect and get some good manly dirt under his fingernails, he moves into a fixer-upper in middle-of-nowhere ardnakelty, ireland; a place with no handguns, no copperheads or cottonmouths or rattlesnakes, no bobcats or bears or coyotes, no black widows, not even a mosquito, only to find himself even more uncertain about right and wrong, good and bad guys.
he learns pretty early on that small towns have their own deeply ingrained codes and mores, and while there may not be any snakes (thanks, st. patrick!), there are still dangers to navigate—a litany of social infractions illuminated for him by his new neighbor mart; a chatty older man who gives cal the lay of the land, riddled with proverbial landmines.
Listening to Mart, Cal has started to get an inkling of how tangled up things get around here, and how carefully you have to watch where you put your feet. Noreen, who runs the shop in the brief double line of buildings that count as Ardnakelty village, won’t order the cookies Mart likes because of a complicated saga that took place in the 1980s and involved her uncles, Mart’s father and grazing rights; Mart doesn’t speak to an unpronounceable farmer on the other side of the mountains because the guy bought a pup that was sired by Mart’s dog when it somehow shouldn’t have been. There are other stories like that…he’s gathered enough to know that he could have sat on someone’s stool in the pub, or cut across the wrong piece of land on one of his walks, and that that could mean something.
mart is a respected figure in the town, and once cal wins his approval, mart becomes his virgil, taking him to the pub and introducing him to the locals, whose low-key mistrust of outsiders holds an especial antipathy towards americans; one rooted in broad stereotypes and their dealings with the previous tenant of cal’s place. under mart’s wing, cal’s natural affability and cop-honed ability to read a room and adapt to his surroundings, playing up the ‘hapless american’ act and taking his cues from those around him, eventually wins him the town’s grudging acceptance.
it isn’t until cal meets 12-year-old trey; a local kid whose beloved older brother brendan has gone missing, and reluctantly agrees to look into the matter, that the dangers larger than dog and sheep disputes begin to appear.
on the surface, there’s no great mystery to a nineteen-year-old leaving a town that people—especially young people, have been leaving to seek better opportunities for quite some time, but as cal begins to poke around and make inquiries, the reticence and deflections he encounters seem to be more than just the typical “none of your business” attitude a small town constructs against outsiders, and their scrutiny of his pursuit becomes more palpable, pointed.
All of a sudden he has that sensation he kept getting…an intense awareness of the spread of the dark countryside all around his house; a sense of being surrounded by a vast invisible web, where one wrong touch could shake things so far distant he hasn’t even spotted them.
french paints cal into a tricky corner, layering the complications of his ‘fish out of water’ status with his being a cop with no authority. he has the skills to subtly investigate a missing persons case; years of interrogation have fine-tuned his ability to read people and mask his intentions in casual conversations, and he’s certainly able to track down witnesses, follow clues, and gather evidence, but with no gun, no badge, no backup, out of his element in a whole new world of unspoken rules and subtext, he’s in an extremely vulnerable position.
cal is such a great character—he has a defined personal code and moral compass, but he doesn’t have a hero-complex. he’s respectful of how things work in his new surroundings, careful not to impose his ideals where they’re not wanted, turning a blind eye to shadiness he would not have been able to ignore if he were back home. he’s driven by a need to fix things—restoring the house and furniture, solving problems, teaching trey practical skills, but he’s not looking to fix the way his adopted home handles its business.
the relationships in this book are sheer perfection. cal and trey’s scenes together are so damn good, and the arc of their relationship; cal’s gruff mentorship, trey’s naked hunger for a male role model, and the strain certain revelations bring to their relationship are all rich and worthwhile and it never falls into easy sentimentality.
my favorite teachable moment: cal’s taxonomical lesson to trey about the difference between manners, morals, and etiquette is suitable for framing.
although it takes up far less room on the page, cal’s strained relationship with his adult daughter alyssa; their awkward phone conversations where it’s clear that they’re both trying to have a better relationship, but there’s so much unspoken between them; carrying the weight of unhealed disappointments, his failure to understand her—it’s achingly, complexly real.
cal and mart are another excellent pair—there’s a real friendship blossoming there, but there’s always a glint of some dangerous edge beneath mart’s surface folksiness; their mutual withholding becoming a primal instinct, like animals circling each other. such potent, gritty stuff.
this is, like The Witch Elm, another stylistic/generic departure for tana french—but at the core of it lie the same strengths: she has a bone-deep understanding of what makes people tick, she’s a measured and deliberate storyteller, and she always takes the less-travelled ethical road in terms of what is right, morally, and what is right, legally, avoiding clichéd answers about what constitutes justice or closure. it may not be a procedural, but her novels have always been very character-driven, and these standalones have given her more room to explore her themes and i am all for it.
if she wants to write a romance novel next, i’ll damn well read a romance novel.
review to come, but good lord.
tana french is writing her take on a western??
please please please gimmie!!!!