Tana French's Newest Book Did Not Need a Halfbaked Black Lives Matter Subplot

Illustration for article titled Tana Frenchs Newest Book Did Not Need a Halfbaked Black Lives Matter Subplot
Image: Penguin Random House (Other)

“If you don’t have your code,” the main character of Tana French’s new novel, The Searcher, tells a little girl with a missing brother midway through the story, “you’ve got nothing to hold you down. You just drift any way things blow you.”

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The line seems straight out of a western, and for good reason. French’s novel follows Cal Hooper, a disillusioned former Chicago cop—who happens to talk and think like a John Ford cowboy—who has taken early retirement and moved to Ireland following a shooting incident involving a Black teenager. He is sucked back into the world of missing persons when a girl asks for help in locating her brother possibly lost to the Irish criminal underworld. The story borrows heavily from its namesake, 1956’s The Searchers starring John Wayne, as well as 1969’s True Grit, also starring Wayne.

It’s a strange time to be waxing nostalgic about moral codes in conjunction with John Wayne Westerns, given their role in glorifying the genocide of Native Americans. (Not to mention a recently resurfaced Playboy interview, in which Wayne stated categorically: “I believe in white supremacy.”) Still stranger is the authorial decision to base the character of Cal Hooper on overtly glorified John Wayne archetypes in a book with a Black Lives Matter subplot in which the main character is effectively let off the hook for not caring that much about the life of a Black teenager his partner nearly murdered. 

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This misstep seems especially egregious in a book by an author who specializes in stories about how the wounds of the past shape the mistakes of the present. Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, was a rarity in the world of detective stories—an elaborately plotted and rewarding mystery that was also filled with complicated characters fighting through their own shit in an attempt to arrive at something like the truth. For the main character of that novel, the aftermath of tragedy rippled from past to present in ways only traceable in hindsight from a lonely future. It was just as much about the tragedy of never fully seeing ourselves or truly understanding our own motivations except in retrospect as it was about murder, a rare and wonderful feat in a genre packed with predictable, and sometimes very shallow, stories.

If In the Woods was a story told in ripples, French’s The Searcher hits more like a cinderblock thrown from a bridge: a big splash that sinks rather quickly. Former Chicago detective Cal Hooper is a, sorry for stretching the metaphor one last time, fish out of water as an American painstakingly remodeling a recently acquired farmhouse in rural Ireland. A North Carolina native who somehow—the story is unclear—became a Chicago cop married to a woman from “the hood” in New Jersey, Cal is recently divorced, retired, and partially estranged from his twenty-something-year-old daughter.

The actual detective story is serviceable, if not French’s best work, offering plenty of intrigue and a surprising twist ending that makes perfect sense if one has been paying attention. The problem with the novel lies in French’s baffling decision to include Black Lives Matter in a story where it ultimately has no business. To Trey, the child who enlists Cal’s detective skills in searching for her brother, Cal explains quitting the Chicago P.D. thusly: “Black people got mad about being treated like crap. Bad cops got mad ’cause they were getting called on their shit all of a sudden. Good cops got mad ’cause they were the bad guys when they hadn’t done anything.” Later, Cal reveals that he handed in his resignation when his partner shot at and missed a Black teenager who may or may not have been reaching for a knife, though not before supporting his partner’s decision to shoot. And that is ultimately all the book has to say on the matter of Black lives, countless real-life police murders, and the question of “good cops,” which act as MacGuffins, lending Cal Hopper a backstory that never gets addressed by the front story.

At the outset, Cal Hooper doesn’t understand how the police shooting, his failed marriage, or his estrangement from his daughter have intersected to find him retired in his forties and single in a strange country. This is a common starting place for many Tana French novels—a law enforcement officer finding him or herself in unfamiliar new circumstances, sifting through the past. But this time, Hooper as a character seems similarly muddled, built from a grab-bag of American cliches, at times an “aw shucks” Southern boy who seems to know no other term for one’s mother’s father than “granddaddy,” others a gun-wielding Wild West cowboy who cannot seem to voice a thought without at least one “reckon,” and finally, most troublesomely, a hardened cop who seen has enough to know that “PC culture” can’t fix real-world problems.

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“The thing is that many of their most passionate moral stances, as far as Cal can see, have to do with what words you should and shouldn’t use for people, based on what problems they have, what race they are, or who they like to sleep with,” Hooper ruminates about his daughter and her friends at one point in the novel. The links between Hooper and avowed racist John Wayne coupled with the character’s refusal to acknowledge American injustice beyond the idea of “cancel culture” don’t seem like intentional authorial choices for deconstructing the biases and problems inherent in a lot of our cowboy hero archetypes. Instead, like Hooper’s baffling speech patterns, the John Wayne and Black Lives Matter connections simply seem like a jumble of references intended to make the novel seem American, with no opinions on how those Americanisms might intersect.

French, who is American, has lived in Ireland since 1990, and by most critics’ measures is considered an Irish mystery writer, despite also being a New York Times best-seller and recipient of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her books have also drawn from American sources in the past. For example, French’s second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Likeness, obviously used Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as inspiration. However, taking the American police murders of Black citizens and using them for the characterization of a white former cop, who feels mostly nothing about them, seems not just unnecessary but almost purposely oblique, an attempt to be topical while saying nothing on the topic. Instead, Cal is content to go on long internal rants about the necessity of a moral code that never touches on the morality of the actual murders of Black people French hints at but never mentions specifically. Her main character never says the words Black Lives Matter, and no one in French’s Ireland seems to have heard of it. If no one has any opinion, the question bears asking, why mention it at all? The answer seems to be simply to make Cal more uniquely American and give him an impetus for coming to Ireland, which is not a good enough reason to involve serious and fraught subject matter in a story where it has absolutely no place beyond a gimmicky, halfhearted attempt at characterization.

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It could be that Cal Hooper feels a great deal of guilt about his involvement in nearly killing a Black teenager and that guilt has compelled him to set things right for an impoverished little Irish girl who just wants to know if her brother is dead or alive. But that connection exists only in a mind looking for reasons The Searcher throws in a single reference to angry Black Americans and includes one flashback to a police shooting, not because it does any work to connect them or extrapolate that guilt, refusing to take sides in a conversation it truly did not need to join.

The main character of In the Woods is incredibly sexist, unbeknownst to himself, categorizing all women based on his attraction to them and assigning characteristics that don’t exist based on his faulty assessments. That flaw is his downfall, and in the end, all his off-putting asides were completely necessary to the novel’s conclusion. Cal Hooper once covered for a partner who nearly shot a Black teenager to death, quit his job, and moved to Ireland to never think of it again. And the novel simply allows him and the reader to forget that detail, suggesting that French herself is either attempting to contribute to the conversation without actually reckoning with the topic or has lived abroad too long to understand the gravity of the subject matter she throws around as easily and as poorly as Cal Hooper’s American Southern slang. Or possibly both. Either way, reading The Searcher reminds one of the brilliance of other Tana French novels, where every bit of characterization matters in the end, but only because the book refuses to let anything matter this time around.

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DISCUSSION

goddessoftransitoryrisesagain
goddessoftransitoryrisesagain

Man, and I was really looking forward to this one. She did such a great job with the MeToo movement and its unrealized impact on the straight white main character in The Witch Elm, so this is doubly disappointing.

It’s one thing to have flawed main characters, but don’t bring in stuff like Black Lives Matter and do absolutely nothing with it.