Tana French, “Broken Harbor”

OK. We know that Tana French is a goddess, yeah? So all I really have to do here is tell you that Broken Harbor keeps up her usual high standard and that you should read it right away. But just in case you don’t know her work, or want details — or because I can’t help myself — here’s more.

Ghost estate: photo from Galway Planning Blog on WordPress

French‘s last outing was Faithful Place, which took a searing look at a certain kind of Irish family dysfunction, while also, naturally, solving a mystery. In Broken Harbor, though, she takes on the more recent phenomenon of the wreckage of the Celtic Tiger. Her narrator detective is Michael Kennedy, whom we knew (and disliked) in Faithful Place as “Scorcher.” In an interview in the Barnes & Noble Review French talks about how she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stand living in Scorcher’s head for the two years it took her to write the book. Well, it can’t be a fun place — Kennedy’s a seriously hurting puppy. But so, it turns out, are all of the characters in Broken Harbor. And, as in French‘s debut novel In the Woods, the detective has strong emotional ties to the location that should probably prevent him from taking the case.

Are the themes hit a little hard here? I’d say so. “Broken Harbor” is the old name of the seaside resort where our narrator used to vacation with his fragile family; two happy weeks a year in a caravan parked on the seashore. Broken (get it? broken?) Harbor has been renamed “Brianstown” as part of one of those sketchy real estate developments that were abandoned in the Irish crash and are now called “ghost estates.” Kennedy catches the case when a young family is discovered dead in their house. Pat and Jenny Spain were living the good life, working hard, spending hard, raising two adorable kids and getting on the “property ladder” with a 110% mortgage, when it all went haywire. Our first clue: the walls of the pristine Spain house — one of the few occupied among the rows of half-built abandoned shells — are full of holes punched through the drywall.

So what we basically have here is a tale in which the slick surfaces are peeled away and we witness the desperation beneath. Is the plot a surprise? Not especially. Is the handling magisterial? Absolutely. As Tana French’s readers know, she is the master of the unreliable narrator and Kennedy is a tour de force. This is a guy who’s spent his entire adult life attempting to hold back the forces of darkness: “In every way there is, murder is chaos. Our job is simple, when you get down to it: we stand against that, for order.”

Here’s another bit of Scorcher’s wisdom, which explains the perennial popularity of the mystery novel. “One of the many ways that murder is the unique crime: it’s the only one that makes us ask why. Robbery, rape, fraud, drug dealing, all the filthy litany, they come with their filthy explanations built in; all you have to do is slot the perp into the perp-shaped hole. Murder needs an answer.”

By the way, French usually chooses as narrator a secondary character from her previous book. This suggests two possibilities for Novel Number 5: the young eager Richie Curran or the odious department hack Quigley. Any bets?

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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8 Responses to Tana French, “Broken Harbor”

  1. Alex says:

    I will come back and read this after the library has coughed up a copy for me. Soon please:).

  2. suzanne says:

    I was wondering the same thing about who the narrator for the next book will be. I’m guessing Quigley. And do you think she will ever get back to/solve the mystery from “In the Woods”?

    • carolwallace says:

      I sort of agree, Suzanne, he would be more of a challenge than Richie who is so well-drawn in “Broken Harbor.” But there’s also the detective who stood in for Jenny as they tried to lure in the lurker — maybe? Quigley would be a tough sell. And no, I think she’s done with “In the Woods.” Moved on. Wish it were out already!

      • suzanne says:

        I was kind of hoping this would be some kind of a series. I mean, all of the characters are obvioulsy connected, but kind of a “dublin castle” series and wrap up the “in the woods” mystery with the last one. And, of course, start a new series! Her books are just so amazing and impossible to put down. And I think “The Likeness” is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
        Excited to discover another avid reader, especially one with similar tastes!

  3. carolwallace says:

    I soooo agree about “The Likeness,” Suzanne. It’s in my all-time top ten. And, speaking of similar tastes, have you read Susan Hill or Fred Vargas?

    Got any recommendations for me? Of course the Tana Frenches of this world are few and far between…

    • suzanne says:

      Have you read Kate Morton? “The Forgotten Garden” is my favorite. And I have to say that I think that “Gone Girl” really is as good as all of the critics say. I’m also partway into Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins” and really like it so far. I will have to check out the two that you recommended.
      I hope your week is off to a great start.

  4. carolwallace says:

    Oh, thank you, Suzanne. I did like “The Forgotten Garden.” And I’ll look into “Gone Girl” and “Beautiful Ruins.” Think we’re on to something!

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