A review of Broken Harbor, by Tana French
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
You probably wouldn’t like Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, the Dublin homicide detective whose story dominates the psychological thriller Broken Harbor. Mick is 42, a grizzled veteran of Dublin’s toughest cases, whose high “solve rate” has long been the talk of the Murder Squad. He’s a tough guy, a loner, largely friendless, who rarely talks about himself; many find him arrogant. At work, Mick is a methodical, by-the-book detective who would never stoop to the shady workarounds of many of his colleagues — and as a result is detested more than admired. Recently, though, Mick screwed up a big case and was sidelined by the bosses. Now he has a chance to redeem himself with another serious, high-profile case: the mass murder of a family in a coastal town once called Broken Harbor.
Mick and Richie, his rookie partner, set out for Broken Harbor to examine the scene where Patrick Spain and his two young children lie dead, their mother, Jenny, on the verge of death in the ICU. It quickly becomes clear that the obvious explanation of what happened isn’t obvious at all. The case is full of unexplained circumstances, hidden clues, and contradictions which embroil the two detectives in a protracted investigation that threatens to end both their careers.
Tana French wrote Broken Harbor in Mick Kennedy’s voice, diving deeply into his own troubled family history, which, it turns out, is closely associated with the old town of Broken Harbor. French is a brilliant stylist and a perceptive observer of human behavior. She’s able to hold the reader’s attention through lengthy passages of soul-searching dialogue, because the clues to this case lie as much in the words spoken and written as in the physical evidence.
Here’s Mick, musing on the changes in Irish society: “Wild got into the air like a virus, and it’s spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train, using their 4x4s to force smaller cars out of their way, purple-faced and outraged when the world dares to contradict them. Watch the teenagers throw screaming stamping tantrums when, for once, they can’t have it the second they want it. Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.”
Mick again, in the desolation of the unfinished “luxury” housing estate that once was Broken Harbor: “It looked like the end of the world. I half-expected feral dogs to slink up around the car when I stopped, last survivors to come staggering and moaning out of skeleton houses.”
This novel transcends the boundaries of the mystery genre by painting a vivid picture of Ireland after the recent crash, which impoverished millions of the Irish middle class and left the countryside littered with half-finished housing developments and high-rises. The murders themselves, and the circumstances of the Spain family that preceded them, bring life (and death) to this scene.
Broken Harbor is Tana French’s fourth novel featuring the cases — and the neuroses — of the detectives who form the fictional Dublin Murder Squad. The Irish-American theatrical actor launched her literary career in her 30s with the publication of In the Woods, to great acclaim, awards, and large sales. This was followed by Faithful Place (previously reviewed here) and Likeness.
I’m certain I would have enjoyed Broken Harbor as much as I did Tana French’s previous books if it weren’t for a certain &^$%^ book reviewer at The New York Times who revealed major elements of the plot. I had the misfortune of reading her review when I had barely started reading the book. Grrrrrrr!
One response to “Mental disorders on parade in this murder mystery set in Ireland today”
This case involves the brutal murder of an entire family in a nearby development named Brianstown, once called Broken Harbor and now a sad testament to the housing crash. Pat and Jenny Spain are found in a disarrayed kitchen splattered with blood from their knife wounds; the bodies of their two young children, Emma and Jack, lie in their upstairs beds, apparently smothered. The rest of the house looks impeccably neat except for strange holes in the walls and a weird scattering of baby monitors. While father and children are pronounced dead, the mother barely clings to life.