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.
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?