“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