Broken Harbor by Tana French

“Here’s what I’m trying to tell you: this case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right. By every rule in the book, this should have been the dream case.”

Those two opening lines from Irish author, Tana French’s fourth novel, Broken Harbor tell us a lot about Dublin Murder squad detective, 42-year-old Mick Kennedy: 1) he cares deeply about his job 2) he’s an engaging narrator, and 3) this is a man who places a great deal of importance on the rules. If you stop and think about it, murder is an instance in which rules are broken; I’m not just talking about laws because that’s obvious. But murder also breaks the rules of what we expect: parents kill their children, children kill their parents; spouses vow to love and cherish ’till death do us part,’ until murder suddenly and inexplicably becomes an alternative to divorce. Even neighbours sometimes engage in feuds that end in death. We’re all supposed to grow to a ripe old age, yet murder violates these expectations and breaks the so-called rules of these trusted relationships. As regular readers of this blog know, I read a lot of crime novels, but Broken Harbor is ahead of the pack for lots of reasons but more of that later.

The novel begins with Detective Kennedy and his rookie partner, Ritchie Curran on a new case. Kennedy, whose nickname is Scorcher, appeared in Tana French’s earlier novel Faithful Place and he’s back here as the narrator. Scorcher had the “highest solve rate” in the department but his success took a beating after a case went wrong, and now down to “second” he’s been given a chance to redeem himself by his boss, who hands him the case.

The second it hit the floor, I knew from the sound that it was a big one. All of us did. Your basic murder comes straight to the squad room and goes to whoever’s next on the rota, or, if he’s out, whoever happens to be around; only the big ones, the sensitive ones that need the right pair of hands, go through the Super so he can pick his man. So when Superintendant O’Kelly stuck his head around the door of the squad room, pointed at me, snapped, “Kennedy, my office,” and vanished, we knew.

The case is a triple homicide: dad, Pat Spain and his two children, Emma and Jack are dead, and Pat’s wife, blonde beautiful, Jenny Spain lies in hospital in a coma hovering between life and death. Right from the outset, the big money is on Pat as the suspect:

When it plays out like this, it’s usually the father: a woman just takes out the kids and herself, a man goes for the whole family.

The Spains lived in a large new home in Broken Harbor, a coastal town–now renamed Brianstown in a housing estate called Ocean View:

At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards LITTLE GEMS CHILDCARE and DIAMONDCUT LEISURE CENTRE. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance something was wrong.

That “something wrong” is a housing estate that started to be built during the economic boom but fell flat shortly after the economy tanked. Only a few houses on the estate are occupied. Other cheaply made houses were in various stages of being completed before the builders abandoned the project. There are “random collections of walls and scaffolding,” many houses lack windows or interior finishing,  some rooms are “littered” with remnants of building materials. It’s as if an alarm sounded and everyone walked off the job leaving the desolate housing estate semi-completed. A few families live on the estate, but squatters have moved in. The Spains lived in one of the occupied houses, and the feeling that there’s something radically wrong with Broken Harbor increases when the detectives enter the Spains’ home.

Scorcher is an engaging narrator who through training Curran also trains us about police procedure. Rule number one, according to Scorcher, (back to those rules again), “no emotions on scene.” Curran argues that his impoverished background and working in Motor vehicles has prepared him for “pretty bad stuff.”

All of them think that. I’m sure I thought it too, once upon a time. “No, old son. You didn’t. That tells me how innocent you are. It’s no fun seeing a kid with his kid split open because some moron took a bend too fast, but it’s nothing compared to seeing a kid with his head split open because some prick deliberately smacked him off a wall till he stopped breathing. So far, you’ve only seen what bad luck can do to people. You’re about to take your first good look at what people can do to each other. Believe me: not the same thing.”

And here’s Rule Number Two:

When someone’s behaviour is odd, that’s a little present just for you, and you don’t let go of it till you’ve got it unwrapped.

I’ve exchanged comments with Max at Pechorin’s journal regarding the creation of literary detectives. It’s ok to have a barely functioning low-rent PI who’s boozed up to his eyeballs, but once you have an alcoholic murder detective who’s on the skids, as a reader, I get fed up with this type of character appearing repeatedly. Scorcher is different. He’s a bloodhound on the scent of the killer, and once he has his teeth in a case, he doesn’t let go, and if that means working 20 hour days, then that’s what it takes. Part of the novel’s power can be found in the way the story is told. Scorcher and Curran arrive at the fresh and relatively undisturbed crime scene and we effectively arrive with them. Author Tana French creates a visceral shock and an intensity as we accompany the detectives through every room in the house.

When you get a chance to see a scene that way, you take it. What waits for you there is the crime itself, every screaming second of it, trapped and held for you in amber. It doesn’t matter if someone’s cleaned up, hidden evidence, tried to fake a suicide: the amber holds all that too. Once the processing starts, that’s gone for good; all that’s left is your own people swarming over the scene, busily dismantling it print by print and fiber by fiber. This chance felt like a gift, on this case where I needed it the most; like a good omen. I set my phone on silent. Plenty of people were going to want to get hold of me over the next while. All of them could wait til I had walked over my scene.

As you can tell from that passage, Scorcher is possessive about his crime. It’s his to solve–no one is going to take it away or screw it up for him, and this brings me to another story thread involving Scorcher’s past. Broken Harbor has a lot of bad memories for Scorcher, and these memories are impossible to bury as the investigation continues. By creating this thread, French draws some nice parallels between Scorcher’s past and the crime, and the case inevitably causes Scorcher to question his carefully constructed belief system. The story is also loaded with some sharply drawn secondary characters:  Office slouch, Quigley who’s viciously jealous of Scorcher’s success and can’t wait to stab him in the back if he gets the chance, Cooper the pathologist who goads Scorcher every chance he gets, Jenny Spain’s sister, Fiona who makes Scorcher uneasy for some reason he can’t fathom, and then there are the Spains’ low-life neighbours, the resentful Gogans who thought the Spains were snobs. Even Broken Harbour seems to become a character–a relic of smashed dreams of suburban success and rising affluence, and a place where violent events seem to be the natural results of a world in which everything went wrong.

While this is a who-done-it police procedural, there is also, rather interestingly, equal weight given to the ‘whys’ of the crime, and perhaps this is yet another reason that makes Broken Harbor stand out from the pack. Bottom line, for this reader, it’s Scorcher’s intelligence and single-minded drive that makes the book a riveting read, and here with one final quote is Scorcher’s “dirty secret” about murder:

I know this isn’t what we get taught on the detective course, but out here in the real world, my man, you would be amazed at how seldom murder has to break into people live’s. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it gets there because they open the door and invite it in.

Review copy from the publisher

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16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, French Tana

16 responses to “Broken Harbor by Tana French

  1. Brian Joseph

    Sounds like a great mystery. The idea of the half completed housing development falling into ruins being “character like” in the book sounds like a great innovation. Though I was not aware that this phenomenon was prevalent in Ireland as it is in America, it is symbolic of modern economics and society and seems to be become rich literary fodder. It kind of reminds me of the way that working class London, or industrial revolution era English and American factories played into so many stories in previous generations.

  2. I have a fondness for books in which the boom (and its madness) appear. Yes it’s happened in Ireland too, and Australia. Britain too, of course. I think we are living through some dramatic times.

  3. All the countries in Europe whse economies briefly wnet up and then tumbled down have these half finsihed estates and some like Italy and Spain always used to have them. Sad places. Great setting for a crime novel.
    I’ve only ever heard the best of things about Tana French and really think I need to give her a try soon. I’ve got In the Woods but this one sounds extremely good. The detective sounds quite different from most others.

  4. Excellent and right on time: I wanted to read an Irish crime lit book.
    Is it a real series, ie you need to read the books in the proper sequence?

  5. Broken harbor by Tana French was a fun to read murder mystery. I like how Tana French characters are evolving through her novels. In each novel she borrows a character from the previous novel and dvelops it further.
    Great post !!!

  6. Thanks for the comment, Esther. Broken Harbor is a very impressive book, and I hope there are many more to come from this author.

  7. leroyhunter

    French seems to attract almost universal praise, which is impressive. I only found out recently that she used to ba an actress.

    Along with the Benjamin Black series, she’s someone I’m thinking about trying but just haven’t committed yet.

    • Leroy: I read the latest Benjamin Black and liked it but it wasn’t anything extraordinary. That said, I expect I’ll get around the reading the others at some point as I do a lot of crime reading. Broken Harbor is out of the realm of ordinary when it comes to crime writing and she takes it to a new level. Yes, it’s a specific crime, but it’s intense–not a cold investigation, and she’s also onto the greater theme of human behaviour. Call me twisted, but I like a good crime read to leave me with a hollow, uncomfortable feeling and that’s what French did with this book. Her writing style is excellent and some passages which describe the housing estate are positively lyrical. She really captured the essence of broken dreams and the damaging consequences.

      • leroyhunter

        That’s high praise Guy. Looks like I should bump her up the wishlist.

        Despite my liking for crime fiction I tend to be very suspicious of new and especially big-selling stuff. I just assume that it’s formulaic, badly-written etc. This sounds the exact opposite.

        • My interest in a new book is in inverse proportion to the hype. This was one I heard quite a bit about, and it was honestly much much better than I expected. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of it.

  8. My wife read the first Benjamin Black and wasn’t blown away, but then she’s not a crime fiction reader and is far more interested in prose technique and literary quality which isn’t what Banville is aiming for in those.

    The detective is whatmakes this sound interesting, plus the location. As you note though from our past discussions, so many of these detectives are so similar. It’s nice to have one break that mould.

    Have you read the first? I do prefer to start series at the beginning.

    • No I haven’t read the first one, but it’s not really a series if I understand correctly as it’s about the Dublin Murder squad rather than this one particular detective.

      • Interesting, that reminds me of the approach taken by the 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain. He’s an example not much followed, which actually is something of a shame as his basic idea of following a squad was a good one.

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