We are really leaning into the 2020 mood for this month’s Nerdette Book Club pick: The Searcher, a dark and creepy murder mystery from author Tana French.
In The Searcher, a retired Chicago police officer moves to a small town in Western Ireland for a bit of peace and quiet, only to get drawn back into his old ways when a local boy asks for help solving the mystery of his brother’s disappearance.
French is the acclaimed author of the Dublin Murder Squad series, which was recently developed into a TV show for STARZ. The Searcher is her second standalone novel.
In today’s episode, Greta hosts a spoiler-free chat with French about leaning on themes from American Westerns, her first American protagonist and of course the “intractable complexity of right and wrong.”
And come back later this month for a spoiler-filled chat about The Searcher with our group of panelists … and you! Send us a voice memo with your thoughts on the book. Just record yourself and send the audio file to email@example.com.
Below are a few highlights from Greta’s conversation with The Searcher author Tana French.
An homage to Westerns
Greta Johnsen: You’ve spoken about how this book is a bit of an homage to Westerns. And the title is of course a reference to an Alan LeMay book called The Searchers, which then became a John Wayne film. What interested you about that genre?
Tana French: There are a lot of things I liked about Westerns. The thing that really did it for me and that The Searcher came out of was the settings. Because they have a lot of resonances with the West of Ireland. Westerns tend to have a sense of a harsh country that’s going to demand physical and mental toughness from anyone that wants to make a living out of it. And there’s also the sense of place that is very distant—not just geographically but also culturally—from any of the centers of power. So the people living there feel like, if they want any kind of cohesive society, they’re going to have to make their own rules.
And so I started thinking about how those tropes of Westerns would transpose onto the West of Ireland. What would I have to change? What would need to shift? And what could kind of stay as it was?
A ‘stranger in a strange land’ story
Johnsen: You made your protagonist in The Searcher an American, which places him into that archetype of the stranger rolling into town. This is your first American protagonist, right?
French: Yeah, the stranger in town shows up in a lot of Westerns. He kind of strolls into the saloon, and he’s probably got secrets, and he doesn’t answer questions, and he’s often an enforcer of the law. But whatever he is, he’s going to stir things up. He’s going to make changes. Like maybe he’s going to shoot the corrupt sheriff and set the town to rights, or he’s going to shoot the hero and make everything go to pieces, or he’s going to get shot for interfering with the order they’ve established. But he’s a disruptor. He’s a catalyst.
So [this character became an American because] that’s the only way he could be an outsider. He had to be somebody who had no connection to this town, and Ireland is small. Everyone is connected to everyone in some way, and playing “spot the connection” is like a national sport. People quiz you about, “Who do you know from here? Who are your parents? Did you ever go to school with so-and-so?” And somebody would have found out — like Lori, the local shopkeeper and information repository — she would have placed him inside an hour.
Exploring questions of morality
Johnsen: You notably made him a cop. Specifically one who took an early retirement after witnessing an incident while on the job in Chicago that made him question the morality of the law.
French: Right, I wanted to have that tension around morality because that’s one thing Westerns do. They’re always very deeply involved with the idea of morality. And when I started writing this, I was thinking a lot about the idea of morality — which I think a lot of us are these days — and about the urge to make it simple. You know, you get: “This person liked a horrible comment on Twitter, so he must be evil. End of story.” Or on the other side: “This person does terrible things to other people, but he says he’s religious, so he must be a good person. End of story.” We really want it to be simple.
But one of the things I love about Westerns was how matter of factly they deal with the complexity of morality. They’ve got people who are trying to do the right thing in situations where that might not be an option. And they deal with the fact that people who are mostly good sometimes do bad things and vice versa. And Westerns, they don’t gloss over that. They don’t try to deny it. They don’t try to explain it. They just lay it out.
So if I was going to write a book that had any tinges of Western, it had to be underpinned by that focus on the intractable complexity of right and wrong.
This conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.