Published by Penguin
A retired cop unearths hidden mysteries in Ireland’s wild west
“WHEN Cal comes out of the house, the rooks have got hold of something. Six of them are clustered on the back lawn, amid the long wet grass and the yellow-flowered weeds, jabbing and hopping. Whatever the thing is, it’s on the small side and still moving.”
Cal is a recent implant into this environment, where corvids hunt their food with an impassive and efficient, well-practiced collective effort. He has taken early retirement from the police force and moved far away to a rustic ideal, to fix up a ramshackle old house and spend his days hunting and fishing, and occasionally joining the natives for a jar or two.
But although his story is set somewhere in The Wild West, it’s the west of Ireland in current times, rather than the vast prairie plains of the American frontier. Cal has left his identity of Chicago cop behind him to embrace life in relative solitude in rural Ireland. He soon learns, however, that no place on Earth, no matter how remote or laden with myth it is, can keep its innocence for long.
French’s prose is as languorous as a cowboy’s drawl, such that I found myself reading in the voice of Sam Elliot, all long vowels and dropped gs. All the better to slow down and take in the both the sweeping descriptions of landscape and the minute, intricate illustrations of rooks catching their prey and the hard work needed to grapple with layers upon layers of peeling wallpaper.
It’s a wonderful juxtaposition, and the writer’s control over the narrative means that no word is out of place. The lovely, descriptive language perfectly captures the idiosyncrasies of Ireland, from its eccentric characters with a local accent “rich as the air, with a needle-fine point that makes him think of cold river water or mountain wind”, to the poetry of simply going about your business fixing your tea or buying biscuits in the village shop.
Cal’s old instincts are riled one evening when a feeling of being watched through the still curtain-less windows befalls him. A trap is set and the culprit is uncovered; a taciturn young child by the name of Trey, who has somehow got wind of Cal’s law enforcement past and who, after a little time spent with Cal helping to sand an old desk, endeavours to enlist the former policeman to solve the case of a missing person.
Cal is reluctant, not only because he thought those days were over, but because he has no desire to ruffle any feathers in the community that has begun to warm to the big American who has taken on the old O’Shea farm. But curiosity gets the better of him, not to mention a sense of duty to the kid who has proven quick-witted and capable, underneath the reticent guise, and all manner of dark secrets and hidden agendas begin to unfold.
Like a seasoned rancher, the story takes its time, but there are no spare sentences. Everything is connected, and every interaction is a road to somewhere. Grand stretches are given to the bonding between Cal and Trey, which becomes something like master and apprentice, or sensei and grasshopper. There are beautiful passages following the fixing of the desk, learning to shoot and the shared meals that feel like they’re deepening the plot rather than getting in the way of it.
The breadth of the land is often remarked about, as well as the bewildering tangle of heather and bog on the mountains, but the majority of the action is actually quite contained, taking place mostly in the cottage, sometimes moving to the pub and extending to the small village. With that, the story almost breathes; in and out and in and out as the mystery contracts and then expands with every line of inquiry.
It’s a masterfully told story, and one unique to Tana French’s already impressive, bulging body of work. It’s Ireland by way of an outsider, an American who “picked Ireland so he wouldn’t have to learn a new language, but sometimes feels like the joke is on him.” With wry observations and lyrical metaphors, this is a terrific, suspenseful novel from a writer at the top of her game.