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The Searcher – Tana French

I’m back! After a week of some much needed sun and ocean air I have returned refreshed and rejuvenated after a stale year of quarantine. I ate at a restaurant. I was around other human beings. I sat on the beach and read The Searcher.

It was the latest book put up by the virtual book club I started with a few old friends at the beginning of quarantine. It was picked because, after a couple of heavy books, we all wanted something light – a nice mystery we could all lose ourselves in. We read The Witch Elm together last year, and it was a non stop thrill. I was expecting that from The Searcher, hopeful that I could get lost in a book and forget all of my troubles.

That absolutely did not happen. While I easily got lost in the pages and French’s beautiful prose, The Searcher could not have possibly taken me out of the world I live in. The book is consumed with the main character, a retired Chicago Cop named Cal, questioning the circumstances that surrounded his decision to leave his job and retire early. The reader is left in the dark for most of the book, with a vague understanding that Cal’s wife had left him and his daughter cordially tolerated him. His work and home life falling apart led Cal to buy a run down old house in the Irish countryside, where he grew out his beard and tried to leave the world of American policing behind him.

Just as I was unable to forget the climate of our country while reading this book, Cal could not escape it by moving to Ireland. He soon found himself tied up in a mystery surrounding a timid kid named Trey and her recently missing brother. In trying to find the answers behind her brother’s disappearance, Cal runs into a whole mess of trouble when the small, tight-knit village closes ranks around him. The slow pace comes to a head toward the end of the novel when everything is revealed in a rather anticlimactic way.

While the mystery was entirely underwhelming, it was clearly not the point. Slowly, Cal’s thoughts reveal the chain of events that led him to his tiny homestead in Ireland. His daughter, Alyssa, was viciously attacked and mugged several years earlier, and his focus was on catching the perp. He thought that was where he would be most useful, and that his wife was the sitting-by-the-bedside type. As time goes on, his wife, Donna, makes it clear that he had the wrong response. She wanted him to be a father first and cop second, and Cal was incapable of separating the two. Their marriage descends into destruction, and soon after she leaves Cal experiences a close call at work. I can’t summarize this better than French, so I’m going to excerpt her here:

They had always considered themselves to be good cops, cops who tried to do right by everyone they came across. They had worked hard to be that, even when plenty of people hated their guts on sight, even when some of the other guys were getting meaner by the day and some had been rattlesnake-mean from the start. They had done their damn sensitivity training. And yet, somehow, they had ended up almost killing an eighteen-year-old kid. Cal knew it was unspeakably wrong…but no matter how much time he spent fumbling at it, he couldn’t put his finger on a point where he could have made things go right…Cal wouldn’t have known how to explain that it wasn’t that he couldn’t handle the job anymore. It was that one or the other of them, him or the job, couldn’t be trusted.

This part of the book, intended to be a reveal, read more like a product placement at first. An advertisement for “the other side” of #DefundThePolice. I rolled my eyes, exhausted by the “Not All Cops” argument that I felt was being thrust in my face, until I remembered something that Cal thought earlier in the book.

He hears talk about the immorality of young people nowadays, but it seems to him that Alyssa and Ben and their friends spend plenty of their time concentrating on right and wrong. 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. While Cal agrees that you should call people whatever they prefer to be called, he considers this to be a question of basic manners, not of morals…
In Cal’s view, morals involve something more than terminology. Ben damn near lost his mind over the importance of using the proper terms for people in wheelchairs, and he clearly felt pretty proud of himself for doing that, but he didn’t mention ever doing anything useful for one single person in one single wheelchair…And on top of that, the right terms change every few years, so that someone who thinks like Ben has to be always listening for other people to tell him what’s moral and immoral now. It seems to Cal that this isn’t how a man, or a woman either, goes about having a sense of right and wrong.

Until the BLM surge of last summer, I was comfortably ensconced in my white privilege and very, very blind. When Cal talks about manners, not morals, being the reason we should use the right terms for people, I felt a spotlight shining on me so brightly that I nearly sweat from the imagined sudden attention. In my former life (pre-Covid), I would always refer to people how they wanted to be referred to, but I was a christian (at the time, and I can’t possibly apologize enough) and an abelist and a happily oblivious participant in systemic racism. While I have spent the last year reading about activism and allyship, specifically the dangers of performative actions with no follow through, I didn’t fully understand it until French, though Cal, spelled it out for me. I realized that I’m not as far along as I thought I was with my personal development, because I need someone to speak White Privilege for me or I won’t fully comprehend it.

The shock of realizing that the only language I can speak fluently is White Privilege made me pause. It made me hold my judgement about Cal and the reasons that he left his job. I don’t sympathize with him, and I don’t have a ton of empathy for him either. The white cop with a fat pension gets to retire early and buy an old farm in Ireland…”cry me a river” was made for these situations. What I realized is that I don’t need to be on Cal’s side, I just need to remember that there are multiple sides. What happened to that kid was unequivocally wrong, but is it Cal who was the wrong one? The system is undeniably broken, but who’s fault is it? (besides Harry J. Anslinger)

As a society, we have dissolved complex, layered issues into one word that we can designate as right or wrong. Individual faces are put up to take the fall for crimes perpetrated by systems and organizations so that the bloodlust can be quenched quickly, rather than examining the big problem in order to administer justice and achieve fairness. We should be holding people accountable and asking for change, but instead we’re sentencing people to life in exile without parole. Cancel culture is becoming chaotic, with defendants sentenced by a jury that hasn’t examined the evidence. If cancel culture is the social death penalty, shouldn’t we carefully consider everyone on the block?

I don’t know the answer to that question, honestly. What I do know is that it will be complicated, hard to find, and certainly not cut and dry. True justice will only be achieved by time filled with thought and consideration. That’s what Cal took when he went to Ireland, the time to adjust his moral code to the changing world. For better or for worse? Only you can decide. Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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Categories: Books Mystery/Thriller

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