Review: Broken Harbor by Tana French

As I said in a previous post, I’ve been intentionally reading more women writers this year, for a variety of reasons. But Tana French is one of the few women writers I was already reading, because frankly, she is one of the best crime fiction writers out there. I’ve been a fan since the debut novel. And 2013’s Broken Harbor — her fourth Dublin Murder Squad book — is her best offering since that debut novel, In The Woods.

North of Dublin, in Brianstown — formerly a beach vacation spot called Broken Harbor, now one of the many disintegrating housing developments whose builders went belly up during the financial crash — there has been a brutal triple homicide. The two young Spain children have been smothered in their beds, their father has been stabbed to death, and their mother is in critical condition, having barely survived the apparent assault. Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy and his promising young partner, Richie Curran, are sent to investigate.

While Kennedy initially suspects the father, Pat Spain, the case becomes impossible tangled as more facts to come to light: a series of odd break-ins that Jenny Spain kept from her husband, a mysterious animal in the attic that had become an obsession to the recently unemployed Pat; a stalker in an abandoned neighboring property; and Detective Kennedy’s own dark family history with Broken Harbor.

As the police procedural morphs into a psychological thriller, Detective Kennedy tries to make order out of the mess. In the end, he finds himself questioning the central tenets on which he has built his life: Do people get what they deserve? Or do things just “happen”?

As in the other Dublin Murder Squad books, the protagonist originally appeared as a supporting character in a previous book. Detective Kennedy originally appeared in 2010’s Faithful Place. And though the plot of Broken Harbor is tighter than in some of her previous books, it is really her characters that make French’s books pop. Which is why, to tell the truth, I wasn’t really looking forward to hearing from Scorcher over the course of an entire book. He’s not particularly likable in Faithful Place, nor is he particularly interesting. And honestly, he’s not much more likable here. But he is interesting. French does a fantastic job painting a picture of a man struggling to do the right thing, to tame a wild world that refuses to be tamed. “I’m the least fanciful guy around,” he says, “but on nights when I wonder whether there was any point to my day, I think about this: the first thing we ever did, when we started turning into humans, was draw a line across the cave door and say: Wild stays out. What I do is what the first men did. They built walls to keep back the sea. They fought the wolves for the hearth fire.”

Scorcher isn’t the only fascinating character though; the book is loaded with them, and I hope French returns to some of them in future books, particularly Richie Curran.

But in a book stuffed with great characters, the most vivid one is not a person at all. The economic crash that took down so many dream around the world hit Ireland particularly hard, and its presence hangs over the entire novel like a cigarette smoke, sinking into and staining everything. And while the book is not political in the least, it is easy to read it and identify the real-life people living under that strain now — a generation that played by the rules they were taught, that did what they were supposed to do, only to find that they had been sold a bill of goods and that they were now trapped. And it’s impossible not to feel anger at the people and the institutions and the politicians that fed them the lies only to abandon them.

Back to the book: On the down side, the writing does drag at points. It feels like French could have made the shift away from police procedural a little sooner and a little more smoothly, and the wrap up could have been tighter as well. But particularly in the middle section, the tension in Broken Harbor is exquisite. Throughout the book, the twists are numerous and believable. The characters are real and flawed and beautiful. And the story is heartbreaking and oh so human.

Well done, Ms. French. Highly recommended.


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